Connecting Homeschooling and Religious Abuse

by Becoming Worldly

I was asked a very good question by a homeschooler recently and figured I’d answer it here as well, expanding on it a little bit. The essence of that question (as I understood it) was “Why are you including homeschooling in your discussion of religious abuse? Aren’t those two separate things that you’re mistakenly combining?”

I guess the pattern and argument for why I include them together is very clear to me but I can see how most people would likely view them as two separate things. After all, abuse in a religious context can certainly occur without homeschooling ever being in the picture (Ex. See Catholic Church child sex abuse scandal), and homeschooling can be done without ever even having religion involved, not to mention religious abuse. Homeschooling and child maltreatment based on extreme (and in my opinion pretty warped) interpretations of Christianity (what I’m calling “religious abuse” for the sake of simplicity here) certainly do not have to be connected, and obviously curtailing the former would not stamp out the latter. So why would I be talking like this, like they’re connected? Is it because I am mistaken, somehow conflating factors, or because in some ways they really and truly are?

First off, let me say that I too wish that the issue of religious abuse could be decoupled from homeschooling (which I think is a legitimate and respectable educational option), but I don’t think it can be done as it currently stands. They have become intertwined.

I think that there are some important links and patterns that once recognized, change everything, but if I don’t highlight the pattern of what I see, I imagine it’s easy to conclude that I am just mistaken or generalizing based on my own personal experience. As it is, it’s also easy for me to assume that others will automatically see this system and to get frustrated when people don’t. Then I remember that everyone’s lived experience is a bit different and that I have also read and researched a heck of a lot on this topic in addition to having the lived experience of growing up in it. Additionally, I had six years of training (bachelors in political science and master’s degree in public policy) that taught me how to use certain tools, methods, frameworks, and analysis techniques. So here’s my “policy nerd” reasoning:

If you look at the individual or family level, homeschooling looks like a mishmash of various styles based on personal choice, varying from family to family. The pattern is not very apparent (and I would reach the same conclusion that these are two separate topics) but if you look at it at a system level the situation becomes stark (and to me very disturbing).

Homeschooling started out as a way to “liberate” children from authoritarian and rote desk-based learning, but leadership of the movement has been hijacked and become the main socio-political apparatus of a fringe group that has some very extreme practices and aims and has grown very politically powerful due to this takeover of homeschooling leadership. I mean just look at what kind of stuff the HSLDA advocates for with its dues money and the radical bent of its leaders. For brevity’s sake I will only list five things.

– They have said that “everyone” should have the right to homeschool, not making formal distinctions for convicted abusers or others who would not pass a background check or ever be seen fit to teach other people’s children.
– They have advocated for what is essentially a dismantling of the child welfare system and an expansion of parental rights in a way that essentially amounts to “ownership” of children, as opposed to simply having and carrying out a duty to raise and protect your offspring.
– They have called for a parental rights amendment to the United States constitution essentially saying that parents should not have checks or balances from outside entities. They ignore and paper over the unfortunate yet widely known fact that not all parents are fit or have their children’s best interests in mind and that absolutely awful things can and do happen when there is no mechanism to discern or intervene when things have gone wrong within a family.
– The HSLDA has funneled homeschoolers’ dues money and aptitude for activism and volunteerism into fielding political candidates such as Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann, and Todd Akin and supporting others with similar radical socio-political agendas. (This has not just been about homeschooling deregulation either. These politicians’ records and agendas regarding family planning, women’s rights, gay people’s rights, religious freedom, and rape have been clear.)
– HSLDA fearmongering and political activism has helped them keep their coffers full and our nation awkwardly keeping company with only Somalia and south Sudan when it comes to not ratifying the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child. The whole recent debacle with the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was similar.

So at first this stuff just seems weird, right? I mean why might homeschooling have anything to do with gay people or rights for the disabled or the idea that ordinary children should being treated like actual people deserving of similar protections to any other American citizen? Well, the short answer is it certainly doesn’t need to (well, except that homeschooling might be a desirable option for a disabled kid, or that homeschooling in certain circumstances is used to protect children). The thing is, if you are a fearful conspiracy theorist who also believes that you are the new set of God’s chosen people and you must “take back” our nation so that everyone can adhere to the most fundamentalist interpretations of biblical law, apparently these things have a lot more in common with homeschooling than first meets the eye. Homeschooling is one of the main tools to be used in this agenda. Additionally, if you believe in this stuff, you also think that all the “unbelievers” are out to take your homeschooling away and there is a good chance they are being led by Satan himself in an effort to do so, and as such they must be fought hard, smashed into the ground. If you look at the world this way, the crazy stuff suddenly makes perfect sense. The odd political advocacy goals of the homeschooling leadership suddenly make sense too.

I think Anderson Cooper’s incredulity at Michael Farris and the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities issue properly expresses what a normal person’s perspective might be when encountering this form of extremism, but the fact is we need to understand it and we also need to do something about it.

Things that normal homeschooling parents might want (opportunities for seamless and easy transitions into and out of public schools, the ability to participate and use public education resources on an “a la carte” basis, assistance with academic subjects that are not their forte, structures that make sure homeschooling kids at least know as much as their public school counterparts and are being given due credit for it, and an option for their kids to join local school sports teams) are not being advocated for by these people. The fringe doesn’t want these things. They want total control over children’s minds, bodies, and souls for their “holy” fight.

Under their leadership, homeschooling is not an educational choice. Instead it is pushed as being a lifestyle but it is really about using people as a culture wars tool. You soon learn that it is ultimately not about having a happy family life but rather about fulfilling “duties” with hope of rewards for it in heaven. I am not even going to get into how certain pastors and homeschool leaders are getting rich and powerful leading this movement. I will say that homeschooling of this sort is ultimately not about the children except that they are seen as tools in this crusade and so that is why it is seen as good to have or adopt as many of them as possible. They are weapons of sorts. This is so bad for children. I cannot overstate how bad this is for children (even when they seem to obey with a smile all the time).

This is why so many grown kids from this movement have totally rebelled against it and anything that even remotely looks like it and why others stay in, don’t question, and operate essentially as automatons working towards the objective. It hurts people in different ways and it’s why the former fundamentalist homeschool kids I know joke about whether someone “is still drinking the kool-aid” or not. It is why so many of us have “health problems” stemming from the years of being threatened, coerced, and told we were not measuring up to being what our parents were told they needed to craft us into if they were “Godly.” Yeah. Like that wouldn’t leave almost anyone with some issues.

I know plenty of homeschooling families definitely don’t buy into this extreme worldview and in fact are just as horrified by it all as I am. They just want to educate their children as best as they are able and enjoy family life. They don’t have some rabid agenda that requires building an “army.” They are more normal than that. The problem is that the crazy is louder than them, so the crazy gets heard and they get ignored or just lumped in and expected to put up with the crazy, as infuriating as that is.

So the bottom line is that an extreme fringe wing of the Christian religious right has taken over the homeschool movement leadership and continues to mold homeschooling as they see fit. They have turned something that was meant to liberate children into something that is often horribly oppressive. This is why the two issues cannot be decoupled – homeschooling is successfully being used as a powerful tool by these people, no matter how many kids their power grab disguised as “advice” hurts.

Anyway, I’m hoping this helps explain why both the religious abuse and homeschooling components are connected, and why I find that discussing them in tandem, with caveats, is the best approach to use when discussing this complicated issue.

I am not criticizing homeschooling as an educational option when I do this. In fact, I think this extreme fundamentalist homeschooling agenda is ultimately as toxic to “real” homeschooling (in all its various forms) as it has been to kids who grew up within this sort of damaging environment. If homeschoolers want to be associated with quality then they absolutely need to make sure they don’t sit back while people with extreme agendas claim to speak for them.

I think right now there is not much public awareness of these connections or how these extreme ideological agendas influence homeschooling (or our nation) as a whole, but in addition to needing to draw a distinction in motivations for homeschooling (and there are a wide range), there is also a huge need for responsible homeschoolers to “take back” the homeschooling movement leadership from the people who see it as a power and “culture wars” indoctrination tool rather than a way to give their kids the best skills and opportunities. I am not maligning homeschooling. I do not have a problem with homeschooling. I do have a problem with the current leadership of the homeschooling movement. It is the real gorilla in the room.

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Becoming Worldly blogs at

Becoming Worldly was raised Fundamentalist Evangelical in South Louisiana until she was 13. At that tender age she was introduced to the world at large and starting her journey away from home schooling environment.

Her blog is primarily about Quiverfull lifestyle, homeschooling culture and politics, child welfare, PTSD, education, poverty, big families, gender issues, and maybe a few bits of south Louisiana or New England culture and a recipe or craft project or two thrown in, just for fun.

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Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement‘ by Kathryn Joyce


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  • Not all homeschoolers are involved in the “Homeschooling Movement.” I would contest that, in fact, homeschooling, in and of itself, is not linked to abuse. I believe that the right to educate my children myself is a very, very important one, and one I will passionately defend. I do, however believe in some oversight of homeschoolers, in order to ensure that the homeschooling is not used as a front for abuse or that an actual education never happens.

  • Futuralon

    Some people think (regular) school’s only purpose is to educate children. There is more to it. Educating the child to be ready for a career as an upstanding citizen is the main goal, which is done by both providing curriculum and by teaching the child rules of conversation, authority, behavior and so forth. The other “agenda” of educators is to keep an eye on children to make sure they are not being abused or exploited when not at school (i.e. at home).
    If you think about it, in the old days, you could train your child to be a farm worker or apprentice or homemaker and no one would question your choices. Those were the days when nearly every one was illiterate, and naive, easily believing dangerous ideas such as ones about health.
    The modern education system means other adults besides the parent, that is trained teachers, are on the lookout for whether a child is underfed, developmentally delayed, covered in bruises, illiterate or whatever. This is called the safety net.
    This is why people with a background in sociology, social work, and education might bristle at the idea of homeschooling in a vacuum (where the child has a limited or nonexistent social circle and is not seen by outsider adults). It’s a recipe for abusers going undetected.

  • 1) Mary, do you believe that *everyone* has the right to educate their children themselves, without oversight or checks and balances, using the curricula of their choice? Then yes, you are part of the “homeschooling movement” agenda to treat children as property.
    2) If you do not, then what are you doing to break the “homeschooling movement’s” monopoly on the voice of homeschooling? Since it is propagating values you oppose, in your name, what are you doing to oppose it?

  • No, I do not believe that everyone has that right without any checks/balances/oversight. That’s why I said I do believe in oversight/regulation. We have to make sure, as I said, that homeschooling is not 1. A coverup for abuse, or 2. A way for parents to avoid eductaing their children.

    I do think that parents have the right to teach their children according to their own ideology as long as that doesn’t harm the kids or others. (Ex. teaching your kids that we beat up gay people would clearly fall into that not-protected category) The person with the first responsibility for my children is me, not my friends in the government. This does not mean that my children are property. If I foul up, or am not doing my job, then of course my friends who are cops/social workers have the responsibility to step in, as does any one who sees it. I expect my friends who serve in congress/legislature/judicial capacities to do their best to legislate and interpret/advocate for checks and balances that would preserve the freedom of me as a parent to raise my children while also recognizing that my children are helpless little people who need someone looking out for them if I were ever to abuse or neglect them.

    2. I’m not sure that breaking the “movement’s” monopoly voice is something I can, or should be expected to, do. I homeschool my kids, and I teach them my values. I share my perspective from my blog. I talk to my congressman, former neighbor, and fellow homeschool parent about issues that concern me. I actually know growing numbers of homeschoolers who like the academic freedoms of homeschooling but reject some or all of what the Uber-conservative-Right-Movement stands for. We live, and share, and vote, our values and experiences as we can. Beyond that, I’m really not sure what you’re asking. 🙂 What are some other ways that you can see combating the vocal majority of far-right-fringe homeschooling voices?

  • madame

    I’ll chime in here from a different perspective.
    I live in Germany, a country that has taken the choice to homeschool children away from parents. In Germany, all children must begin school the summer of the year they turn six if they were born before September 30th. Those born between Sept. 30th and December 31st may start school a year later. If a child is due to start school and the parents decide they are not ready, they need a preschool teacher, doctor, or even school principal to declare their child not yet ready for school.
    Personally, I don’t think this policy is right. I don’t like the feeling that someone else has the right to decide when and where my child should be educated. Parents are informed that their child, born on X date should be presented at their district school on a given date, and later on parents may receive a letter informing them that their child is to take part in certain school preparation classes that take place after normal preschool time, so even if a child is not attending preschool, the parents must see to it that they attend the special classes. My point is, parents are not given a choice. Someone else makes these important decisions for us.
    I had to pull both my sons out from the preparation classes because they were disruptive (bear in mind these classes took place after their usual preschool morning). I was lucky that the preschool director backed me up with the reasoning that the children were already getting help from a specialist during the normal preschool hours, so staying later was not necessary and may set them up to hate school (their friends could go home at midday while they had to stay later)

    There are German parents who have decided to resist the system and homeschool their children against the law of the country. The parents are fined, the children collected by the police and driven to school, parents have landed in jail, have lost custody of their children, and some families have fled the country. There are a few cases that have gained notoriety as the parents were very hardnecked, and despite all measures, have kept their children away from school. All of these parents are fundamentalist Christians who are homeschooling as a means of isolating their children. The HSLDA is lobbying for the right to homeschool in Germany, and has been referred to as a “Christian fundamentalist organization”.

    I support the right for parents to decide where their child will learn. I support some regulation for homeschooling families, depending on the policies of the individual school systems. The way the German child protection talks with me makes me feel like I’m an employee that has to follow orders. Even the invitation they send out for regular checkups is accompanied by a warning that the CPS will be notified if we fail to take our child to the checkup before a given date.

    This has been bugging me lately… sorry if I went a bit off topic!

  • madame

    One more point to my post.
    In Germany, homeschooling is seen as a lifestyle and a means to create a parallel society that isolates children and doesn’t teach them to interact with non-likeminded people, something that the German government will not support. If homeschooling is not presented as a valid means to provide a solid education for our children, with logical plans, and if those who want to push it through don’t show any understanding for the government’s concerns, I doubt the law will be changed.

  • My understanding of homeschooling in Québec, where I live, is something like this: “At least one parent has at least one universtity degree? Great, go for it. Here’s Québec’s approved curriculum and these are the required tests. See you then!” Parents don’t get to teach just any curriculum they feel like, just as professional teachers don’t. A parent who is not qualified to teach may not assume sole responsibility for teaching their own child, just as a professional teacher must be qualified to teach other people’s children. This is for the protection of the child, who has rights of their own separate from the rights of the parent.

    In Germany, my guess is that legislation that is based on the rights of parents to control children, rather than on the rights of children to access adequate eduction in a variety of appropriate ways, will be rejected. This seems completely right to me. Madame, you seem more worried about the rights of parents than the rights of children. I suggest you reflect a little more on your own feelings and where they come from.

  • madame

    you said: “Germany, my guess is that legislation that is based on the rights of parents to control children, rather than on the rights of children to access adequate eduction in a variety of appropriate ways, will be rejected. This seems completely right to me. ”
    I completely agree, IF homeschooling is used as a means to control our children and stunts their education and growth as individual human beings. I think I made it clear in my post above that I agree with and support some form of regulations for homeschooling. Like you, I am concerned about the rights of our children to a good, solid education, and to protection from any person or system that tries to control them or manipulate them. Children have the right to develop into the people they were born to be. I think I have made that clear in this and other threads, so I can’t understand your final comment. It comes across as condescending.

    Homeschooling is not always a means to control one’s children. I’ve heard of familes that took their children out of school because they weren’t learning, or they were developing negatively, being bullied (and little or nothing was done about it), they were stressed and anxious, etc… Some children do fall through the cracks in the school system. Not all children learn well in a classroom with 20 or more children, and not all schools have enough staff to meet the needs of these children.

    Our school invites parental involvement, and I am involved. They have teachers for special needs children who will take them out of the group and coach them. They offer a lot of support to children who are struggling with one or another subject to help them get up to the same level as their classmates. I feel the teachers truly care about the children. But if one of my children were stuck in the school system and were unhappy and distressed, I would like to have the right to make the decision as my child’s parent to take him out of school and teach him myself, if need be. Don’t you think parents should have the right to protect their children and do what is best for them? Do you think the school system (which also has to abide by the law) is always right and always knows better?

  • jafmina

    Children have been viewed as a resource, a commodity, by crazy parents, sex traffickers, and governments for a very long time. They are vulnerable in all cases. I’m not sure all parents are fit to be educators of their children as many of them are not fit to be parents to begin with. Those who are fit parents are the “normal” ones you speak of. So, I don’t think it is about homeschooling so much as it is abuse. And that is hard to quantify when it doesn’t always leave bruises. I even had a friend who was, herself, far more religiously fundamental than her parents. I wonder how that interview with a social worker would have gone? So, who is to decide just how much fundamentalism is acceptable and who is to blame and what is to be done about it? And yet, I’ve worked with kids who have emerged/escaped from religiously abusive situations, and I’d love to know there is a way to ensure that never happens to another child ever again.

  • I never understood why homeschooling and religious abuse were always so conflated. Of course I knew that homeschooling was a way in which extreme fundamentalists controlled and isolated their kids, but I still saw the homeschooling movement as something separate. Until I began trying to homeschool my own kids, primarily for academic reasons. It was only then, when I was looking for resources and support from other homeschooling parents, that I began to realize I was in the minority. I’m definitely not a religious fundamentalist (I am a Christian, but one of those liberal types who reads the bible with the socio-historical context in mind), and I had difficulty finding a homeschooling group or curriculum that wasn’t too religiously conservative. I’ve still yet to find a convention I’d be willing to go to.

    What would you suggest a ‘responsible’ homeschooling mom like me do to try to ‘take back’ the leadership of the movement? I agree it needs to be done, but I don’t know how to start. The last thing I want to do is immerse myself in that toxic environment and fight a culture war from within.