On homeschooled children and being “well behaved”

“Is she homeschooled?”

“What?” I stammered, looking up from the ribbon I was examining. Sally and I were at Hobby Lobby to pick up some cloth for a project.

“Is your daughter homeschooled?” It was the store attendant who cuts the cloth in the fabric area who was asking.

“No,” I replied. “Why?”

“Oh, she acts like a homeschooled child. She’s so well behaved, like all the homeschooled children who come in here.”

I told her about positive parenting and explained what it entailed, and left it at that. At the same time, a million flashbacks were going on in my head. “They’re so well behaved!” everyone always told my parents. “Not like other children!” “We love homeschooled children here,” the librarians used to say. “They’re all so well behaved!”

The truth is that it’s easy to be well behaved when the alternative is being punished.

Now, not every homeschool family uses authoritarian parenting methods, and I can’t speak for those who don’t. What I can say is that the children who are most conspicuously homeschooled – conservative dress, large numbers of children, wearing their homeschooledness on their sleeves (look, I’ve been there!) – are also most likely to be those who are homeschooled for religious reasons and are part of the Christian homeschool culture. And those homeschool parents are likely to use authoritarian parenting methods. Why? Let’s delve into the motivations of those homeschooling for religious reasons for a moment.

The goal of a parent who homeschools for religious reasons is not simply raising competent, happy adults but rather training children into adults who fit a specific mold and hold a certain set of beliefs. There really is a difference between “raising” children and “training” them. Thus those who homeschool for religious reasons are going for a very specific outcome. That generally means starting by training children to be obedient, quiet, respectful, etc, and that training generally takes place using the threat of punishment for disobedience. And there is also the fact that these parents believe that the Bible commands parents to spank their children. It is my experience, then, that parents who homeschool for religious reasons generally use authoritarian parenting styles and require absolute obedience under threat of a spanking or other punishment.

With that background, let’s look for a moment at what exactly was Sally doing before the store attendant asked whether she was homeschooled. Here is what the store attendant saw, from her vantage point:

Sally had unrolled an entire role of princess ribbon when I suddenly noticed what she was doing. I went over and spoke to her, and then she began putting all the roles of ribbon she had pulled off the shelf back while I rolled the ribbon back up. She asked if we could buy a roll of ribbon, and I said no, and she didn’t put up any sort of fuss.

Interestingly, this is the result I got from using positive parenting techniques, but it is the same result you would expect from someone using authoritarian parenting techniques. The same result, yes, but for very different reasons.

The authoritarian parent: In this scenario, the child would have been told that she did a “bad job” for unrolling the ribbon, and would be told to put the rolls of ribbon back on the shelf. The child would most likely do so, because the consequence, she would know, would be being spanked (and probably right there in the store, too, which let me tell you is especially humiliating). Then, if the child asked to buy a roll of ribbon and was told “no,” the child would acquiesce without a fuss because, once again, begging would likely mean consequences. Perhaps a spanking, perhaps a timeout in bed upon the return home, perhaps a loss of privilege.

The positive parent: When I went over to Sally, I told her that we couldn’t unroll the ribbon because it was the store’s ribbon, not ours. While I re-rolled the ribbon I asked her to put the ribbon rolls back on the shelf – once again, because they belonged to the store – and she did so. Sally then asked if we could buy the princess ribbon, but I told her we didn’t have the money for it or anything specific in mind to use it for, and that maybe we could buy it some other time if she saved up her money and had something specific she wanted to use it for. Sally understood and acquiesced without a fuss.

Same response, different method.

But one thing that struck me about this whole situation was the “oh homeschooled children are all so well-behaved” trope. Because I heard it so often growing up. The thing is, people like the store attendant who made the comment only see the result, not the method. They see a child being quiet and well-behaved, but they don’t know that that child may very well be doing so under threat of a spanking. And this is why, to be honest, I cringe every time I hear the “homeschooled children are all so well-behaved” line.

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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.

  • http://twitter.com/nicoleintrovert nicole introvert

    You were also in Hobby Lobby. They could have been feeling you out to approach you about homeschooling and proselytize.

    In their own words: http://www.hobbylobby.com/our_company/ministry.cfm
    And who they give money to/refuse service to: http://dark-christian.clanxanadu.org/Organizations/HobbyLobby

    If you have a choice in craft stores, I’d run in the other direction.

    • Noelle

      And here I thought I hated Hobby Lobby because it’s huge and I can never find what I’m looking for and there’s no coherent order as to where stuff is. Also, I’m not crafty. So if I’m going, it’s usually for one specific thing I can’t find at another store and I don’t want to wander around lost in a sea of ribbons and paint kits to find a long crochet needle I want for pulling string back through a hoodie.

      Come to think of it, I could use some positive parenting when I’m at Hobby Lobby.

      Parenting can be tricky. What works for my daughter does not work for my son. I’m looking forward to see how it goes when you have 2. Also, families with over 4 kids may resort to hitting because brute force is easier than finesse. And it takes more time and patience and understanding to do it your way.

    • http://thaliasmusingsnovels.com/ Amethyst

      Oh, well. The last purchase I made at Hobby Lobby was supplies to design a book cover for my Greek-mythology-based novel full of LGBTQ and anti-authoritarian themes. }:-)

    • http://skeptigirl-blog.blogspot.com/ Skeptigirl

      I went to church with the family who owned Hobby Lobby when I lived in Oklahoma City. They also owned the Christian bookstore Mardel’s. They were really rich, which was not at all unusual in our church at the time. The church was not fundie but its more hip relevating cousin. That was decades ago. Wonder what is up with old Lakeside Assembly of God. There were only a few homeschooling familes there, I was friends with a homeschooling girl, she was my only friend. I went to a private school and was so socially awkward that my only friend was a homeschooler, how pathetic was that?

    • http://republic-of-gilead.blogspot.com Ahab

      Nicole — Thanks for the info. I will definitely avoid Hobby Lobby from now on.

  • http://jw-thoughts.blogspot.com JW

    Libby, what about at home. Are you doing only positive parenting when at home, never having to use a belt even once or slap a hand even once? I remember growing up that my mom took a belt to my brother and I. Dad never did it because he said it was too cruel yet after looking back at it it taught my brother and I lessons as we got older. Funny thing, sometimes if one of us got it the other would jump in and want to take it so we were not left out.

    After my parents divorced dad would always tell me that he never whipped me and I told him that he didn’t have to because mom did that. She didn’t do it alot but just enough. Now, I didn’t grow up as you did though. I grew up with a touch of religious upbringing. Went to church every few weeks and then grandma sort of did the rest. We were Lutheran growing up.


    • http://patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism Libby Anne

      Are you doing only positive parenting when at home, never having to use a belt even once or slap a hand even once?

      Yes, I am using only positive parenting at home. And since I rejected the Pearls’ methods when Sally was ten month, no, I have never slapped her, and have most certainly never taken a belt to her! In fact, I really never have the need to do either. Believe it or not, I don’t even do time out. And really? I don’t use *punishments* at all. (Consequences yes, punishment no.) Positive parenting is not something I just do for show when we’re out places or anything!

  • Rilian

    I joined a homeschooling org when I was 17 and most of the members were not even religious but those kids still were so much nicer and calmer, as in they were not quick to anger, than the kids I had known in school. Small sample size I know but anyway I hypothesize that just avoiding the horrors of a typical school goes a long way.

  • Meggie

    I always find it spooky how passive home school children can be. Fundy nieces and nephews who come to my house and sit in the lounge reading books while my tribe run riot. Fundy students who sit quietly in the corner of the room while I teach their siblings music. These are not “well-behaved” children, these are children who have had their spirit crushed.
    Give me my loud, active, boisterous, curious, wild tribe any day.

    • http://AztecQueen2000.blogspot.com AztecQueen2000

      It has less to do with homeschooling and more to do with fundamentalism. I live in an Orthodox Jewish enclave. None of my neighbors homeschool their kids. The kids are so quiet that it’s spooky. My homeschooled kids, on the other hand, can be heard a mile off. Not because they’re rowdy, but because we’re either talking about what’s going on around us (and going off on a hundred tangents) or because they’re excited about where we are.

  • Caitlin

    My family once stopped for lunch at a popular restaurant in a Bible Belt town. Our children, then 11, 8, and 5, had a intense, polite discussion with us about politics and how the three branches of government worked. Our five year old drew puzzles, and the older children solved them. And older couple watched them for awhile, and then the man leaned over, “Your children are so smart and well behaved. I have to ask–are they homeschooled?” We laughed and told him that our children attended public school in [large city with a bad reputation]. He responded with disbelief, saying “Really? Oh my!” and shaking his head. Suddenly he seemed to be slightly afraid of us. We have always sent our children to urban public schools and have never hit them, and we are often complimented on their politeness and ability to engage in intelligent conversation with adults.

    • http://profacero.wordpress.com/ Mictlantecuhtli

      I live in the Bible Belt, or at least among Bible Belters. They are scared to discover that I always went to public school, am not baptized or religious, etc., and yet have no criminal record. They also do not understand why, given that I have no God, father or husband to control me, I do not just sleep with all men. That I would only sleep with ones I am interested in sexually, seems bizarre and terrifying to them, too.

      I figured out finally that it all has to do with my being under my own authority. For them, someone under their own authority just has to be causing mayhem. If not, they are disproving a really important conservative tenet: that human nature is evil and needs punishment/control.

  • Scotlyn

    I often wonder about people who grant fetuses not just the right to “life,” but the right to the use of the body of another in the attainment of life. When exactly do such people believe the children fetuses grow into actually acquire all the rest of their rights – such as their right to bodily autonomy, and self-determination, comprehensively informed consent, etc? It seems to me they are rarely eager to grant any or all of these, stressing only the need to protect “parental rights” until such time as their children are fully indoctrinated.

    • http://profacero.wordpress.com/ Mictlantecuhtli

      Yes, this is the part I do not understand, although I notice that what it does is bar monthers and minor children from bodily autonomy, self determination, etc. So yes, I guess the deal is that the indoctrinated class controls and/or indoctrinates the rest. What a mess.

    • BabyRaptor

      Adulthood for males, never for females. At least, that’s what the fundies who raised me believe.

  • Fina

    You know, no matter how much i KNOW intellectually that it’s legal in the USA, i just can’t quite grasp that people would actually spank their children in public! It’s just so dissonant with my cultural surroundings (Germany).

    There are (unfortunately) still parents that spank their children. But they’d never do it in public, simply because it’s illegal to hurt a child, whether you’re its parent or not. Hitting your child is also almost universally frowned upon, and even just handling your child roughly when you are angry, stressed out etc. can get you into social (though not legal) trouble.

    • Steve

      In the US, laws to protect children haven’t been passed precisely because of the lobbying efforts of the religious right. The United States is the only country besides South Sudan and Somalia that hasn’t ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child for example. South Sudan is a new country that hasn’t had the time yet and Somalia a failed state.

      They fear that their standard tools for raising their brood would be endangered. They are also afraid that they couldn’t homeschool any more, because the convention establishes the right to an education. (which is a silly claim)

      • Fina

        I’m aware of that.
        I think the most important thing the Convention does is establish children as persons independent of their parents, with their own set of rights which their parents may not violate just because they are their parents.

        It’s ironic if you consider all the attempted Personhood-amendments – they want to declare them a person, while they are unwilling to grant them the rights of a person until 18 years later.

      • http://republic-of-gilead.blogspot.com Ahab

        The so-called “parental rights movement” has been a particularly vocal opponent of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, so the Religious Right opposition is very real.

  • Julie42

    I had a lot of experience with this. People would always remark about how well-behaved me and my siblings were. Really, we weren’t well-behaved, we were just terrified of doing anything wrong. Even little mistakes were punished with spankings. I was a really good kid and never needed to be punished so severely, but I was. It made me very timid and so afraid of my parents and doing anything wrong.
    On my seventh birthday, my mom took me birthday shopping. We had to go to the bathroom, so I went first and then she went into the stall and told me to wait outside. I waited outside the bathroom for a little while and then my mom came out, very mad that I had supposedly disobeyed her. Apparently when she said “outside,” she meant outside of the stall, not outside of the bathroom. When we got home, I was given three spankings on my birthday for misunderstanding her.
    It always seemed so unpredictable what stupid little things I would get in trouble for, that I became a very overemotional child and I would start to cry every time someone would point out a mistake I had made or something that I was supposed to be doing. I would avoid my dad when he came home just in case I had done something wrong.

    • http://profacero.wordpress.com/ Mictlantecuhtli

      Condolences!!! We had that situation but because of verbal and emotional abuse. It still goes on and is horrible to watch. I still react to the world as if from that situation some days.

    • http://riliansrlog.blogspot.com Rilian

      This seems to be a common belief among child-hitters, that you can actually “beat sense” into someone, that you can make them know or understand things by hitting them.

  • machintelligence

    Your experience with your daughter may have a lot to do with genetics. In Bill Cosby’s immortal words ” Parents only have one curse, but it always works: I hope you have kids who behave just like you!
    It’s only an anecdote (and the plural of anecdotes is not data) but my wife and I were both studious, nerdy types and so were our kids. My younger brother was a hell raiser, and his kids were little Dennis the Menace types. I thought he deserved them. (What are the first words a younger sibling learns –ME TOO!)

    • Conuly

      Well, in the anecdote vs. anecdote fight, I can point to my young nieces. Not a thing, behavior wise, like either parent OR their loving, doting aunt (I watch them after school and during the summer) or each other.

      The older one is a lot like my dad in personality, though. None of us has the slightest idea where the younger niece gets HER traits from, though.

      • machintelligence

        True, there is a lot of “noise” in the system. According to Steve Pinker in The Blank Slate, the nature vs nurture debate has pretty much been solved. For any observable, measurable trait, it is inheritance 25-50% , parental influence less than 10%, peer pressure,although greater than parental influence, still under10% and everything else accounted for by random chance or fate or call it what you will. It is possible to predict behavior, but not with great accuracy.

  • Camilla

    I think there’s possibly other statistical biases at work:
    (a) Some families are undecided (philosophically) about home schooling. Of those families, the child’s temperament will affect that decision, with the quieter (“I don’t want to see his/her spirit crushed”) children staying home, and the more demanding (“help, get this kid off my hands for a while”) going to school.
    (b) If my child were home schooled, I would be much more likely to take him shopping with me on a regular basis, and thus our approaches to shopping together would be much more polished, out of necessity.

    I say this as a parent of a child who hates going on any sort of errand, and who is badly behaved in stores. I agree with your gentle parenting philosophy… but implementing it in my life means finding someone else to look after [oldest] child while I shop.

    • Rosa

      My son is very high-energy and demanding, so we’ve always tag-teamed parenting – whoever is doing an errand outside the house that kiddo can go on, takes him (today: zoo, sporting goods store, car wash).

      When he was a toddler and having tantrums, I got no end of flack from other parents for taking him places. OH MY GOD CRYING IN THE GROCERY STORE AT 3 PM! BAD MOTHERING! Now, he’s 7. He cuts coupons, reads sales signs, figures out price per unit with a calculator…I get all kinds of compliments on his brains and behavior.

      To me the moral of the story is that parents get complimented on their parenting when it’s actually kids who should be complimented on their behavior. Because some of the most important parts of parenting (like not giving in to tantrums) get the least support from other adults.

      • M

        I have three siblings with kids between the ages of 2-11. The older brother of the two is very permissive with his kids. He defers to his wife on just about everything, including discipline. As a result, his kids are bratty and have a bad case of entitlement. It is almost unbearable to spend time with them when we attend family celebrations at my parents’ home. My other nietces and nephews don’t act the same way because my other brother and sister have different parenting styles. Their children are not insufferable. It is hard for me to not believe that parents do not deserve some (though not all) credit for the behavior of their children.

      • amylynn10

        I asked my mom once how she handled me and my brother when we had meltdowns in public when we were little. She admitted that until we were at least kindergarten age she did her best to hold off her errands until either we were at preschool or my Dad could watch us. Since for much of my pre-kindergarten childhood my Dad was going to school full-time and working full-time and Mom was working this took a good bit of planning. I try to resist passing judgment on other’s situations but I do wonder sometimes if that idea has even occurred to some people. To be frank, Walmart and other big-box stores rattle me and I am well into adulthood, so I have to believe that it’s just too much for some children, even otherwise well-behaved children.

  • http://profacero.wordpress.com/ Mictlantecuhtli

    Raised, not trained, that is a great distinction and it works for teaching as well. Nowadays it seems we are supposed to train and not educate. This is why homeschooling makes college hard — if you are merely trained, and you run into a situation that expects education and offers more of it, it will be hard to grock.

  • smrnda

    I worked with kids for a number of years, and honestly, the kids that I liked the best would probably not be described as ‘well-behaved.’ They weren’t violent, just really spontaneous with vibrant, exciting personalities. Sometimes kids like that can be very demanding, but they are actually interesting and fun to be around. Parents who stress ‘well-behaved’ do a great job of raising little robots who sit quietly and never address adults by their first names, but it’s tough to grow up with a personality of your own if someone is always demanding that you ‘behave’.

    I think the whole idea of ‘behaving’ in children comes from a desire to change kids from people into inert blobs that just sit there and are quiet or else are trophy kids who reflect positively on their parents. Either way, it’s an assault on the individuality of the child in favor of turning them into a nice cog.

  • Michelle

    Wow.. how judgmental of you. Simply because that was YOUR experience doesn’t mean it is the experience of all homeschoolers. Quite frankly, I know few who spank (and some who should!) in our homeschool community. I don’t know anyone who homeschools for religious reason and never have (I’ve been homeschooling for 15 years). I’m not saying there aren’t any, I just don’t know them. Most I’ve met are universalists or pagans and a few are “christians”. None keep their children home to mold them but rather so that the children can break the mold. They don’t want their children being put in a box and reshaped.

    By the way, spanking isn’t a sin. I have yet to meet a child who could be made into what you’ve described by a spanking. Over-doing it, yes. Over-using it, absolutely. But those normal families who spank 1, 2 or 3 times a year for reasons which deserved it, no. Those children keep their free spirit and autonomy.

    • RowanVT

      Who is being judgmental here, hmn? After all, just because YOUR experience wasn’t like this doesn’t mean there aren’t a *lot* of people who home school for religious reasons (and you know, there’s a *reason* most home-school texts are religious in nature….) and who are perfectly willing to wallop their kids for the slightest step out of line. I was not boxed in by my public school education because my parents were active participants in my childhood.

    • BabyRaptor

      So..Because you can’t personally verify her views, she’s being judgmental?

      Maybe you should look in a mirror.

    • Tragedy101

      Failure to define the term religious. For some readers religious reasons are non atheist reasons. Anyone who has a “religion” and homeschools, does so for “religious” reasons. It is essentially a “guilty until proven innocent” concept. Those readers obviously have a lack of judgement. No matter what they say, they cannot be judgemental, because they lack judgement.

      • Rosa

        Not everyone who has a religion and homeschools (probably the vast majority of homeschoolers, as the vast majority of people have a religion) homeschool for religious reasons. Many homeschoolers choose homeschooling for practical or educational reasons. Libby is talking about homeschoolers who do it as a way of sheltering their children from forces they believe undermine their religious teachings – such as gender egalitarianism, evolution, geology, and history that haven’t been altered to fit a Creationist and Christianist viewpoint.

    • http://riliansrlog.blogspot.com Rilian

      It doesn’t matter what the reason is; being hit on the bottom by someone who is supposed to love and care for you is degrading and makes you wonder if life is even worth living.

    • Beguine

      Ummm….actually, the current research indicates spanking increases the risk of mood disorders like depression and other mental illnesses later in life. Yes, yes not every kid who was spanked gets a mental illness just like not every smoker gets lung cancer or emphysema. That doesn’t mean that smoking, or spanking, is a good idea.

  • Tracey

    We’re homeschooling; started in high school so the child could attend community college half-time (for certain subjects) and high school half-time (for others). We do things with several homeschooling groups, and I can tell you that not all homeschooled children–even those of the kind Libby Anne is familiar with–are well-behaved. They’re behaved until the parent isn’t watching them, perhaps, then all bets are off.

    We’re definitely fish-out-of-water in the homeschooling environment around us, where so many are kept home so they’ll never learn of anything the parents object to. As a family we openly discuss religion and politics and sexuality and videogames, but we found when we socialize with the homeschoolers around us, most of the kids have never been exposed to any of that.

    As for Hobby Lobby…yes, I’ve found they’re really creepy and awful.

  • http://PathOfTheBeagle.com The Beagle

    We homeschooled our six children and often got the same comment when out in public. We did spank sometimes, but never in public, nor did we threaten to spank in public. I believe our kids behaved well because (1) they knew their mother and I loved them and (2) their mother and I expected them to behave well, and they picked up on that positive expectation.

    Although we all regarded yours truly as Head of the House, I respected the kids and listened to them. They knew I valued them.

    What I’m saying is that even parents who spank and believe in authority can also be loving and respectful toward their kids.

    Having said that, if I were to raise a family again I would be more egalitarian and would probably not spank except in an emergency.

  • http://PathOfTheBeagle.com The Beagle

    One more factor I forgot to mention: My wife and I always felt that our kids were calmer and better-behaved in public than “normal” kids because ours had a calmer life at home. We usually did not have a TV at home, with its fast-paced editing and frequent commercial breaks, nor did they have to deal with a mob of classmates who were each vying for their spot in the pecking order.

    • Tracey

      We had a teleivision and my child attended public school from preschool through the eighth grade and yet we’ve gotten praise for raising a calm, obedient child. OTOH, our child wasn’t competing with a mob of siblings who were each vying for their spot in the pecking order.

  • http://sunniemomsblog.wordpress.com Susan R

    “The goal of a parent who homeschools for religious reasons is not simply raising competent, happy adults but rather training children into adults who fit a specific mold and hold a certain set of beliefs.”
    I find it hard to believe that anyone is able to discern the inner motivations of religious, homeschooling parents. All those hundreds, probably thousands of people, have had their parenting methods and goals for their children defined in one sentence? Based on …?

    It isn’t unusual or suspect for parents to want to pass down family traditions, including religious ones. Jewish, Catholic, Buddhist, Mormon, Baptist… are all of these parents brainwashing their children? Of course not. There are also parents who homeschool for ethnic and cultural reasons. They should not feel guilty for wanting to pass on a rich heritage to their children, or teach their children the tenets of their religion. Secular/atheist parents pass on their beliefs and traditions to their children as well. We naturally want to share what we love and believe is important to our kids. Does anyone really believe that a particular religion or practice should be discriminated against? And then where exactly would we draw the line on that?

    It is true that there are religious parents who are abusive, just as there are parents who have never stepped foot in a church, temple, or synagogue who are abusive. Violence is a choice that individuals make, usually in contradiction to their religious beliefs, not because of them. Name any demographic and you will find abusers and the abused among them.

    As a matter of fact, most child abuse resulting in fatalities happens before a child is school age. Should we start viewing all parents of toddlers with the same suspicions as some do homeschoolers?

    ‘Homeschoolers are so well-behaved’ , and the myth of the religious-fanatic homeschooler are just a couple of stereotypes in a culture that adores, embraces, and celebrates its stereotypes. Let’s not get all cranky and hostile about this one.