On homeschooled children and being “well behaved”

On homeschooled children and being “well behaved” July 7, 2012

“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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