Homeschooling under the Influence

Homeschooling under the Influence March 7, 2013

After I wrote my posts on academics and socialization, I realized that there is another way homeschooling affected my life—and it’s no less significant. In fact, it’s a whole lot more significant. Quite simply, homeschooling affected my life because it changed my parents. When I was born, my parents were fairly ordinary evangelical Christians. That didn’t last. Their involvement in the homeschool movement introduced them to new ideas they had not before been exposed to—ideas put forward by people and organizations like Michael Farris and HSLDA, Michael and Debi Pearl and No Greater Joy, and Doug Phillips and Vision Forum. I simply cannot overestimate the affect this had on my life.

Somewhere in all this were these toxic ideas about control, and this insidious idea fed to my parents that they could, by homeschooling, completely determine the way we children would turn out. The homeschool literature my parents read urged them to see themselves as gardeners carefully pruning and shaping us, tying us here and clipping us there, gradually turning us into their ideal Christian men and women. My parents were promised a result, promised perfect children if they followed the perfect homeschool formula. In some sense this entire ideology robbed my siblings and I of agency, turning us into mere projections of my parents, frozen snapshots pinned on the wall.

First, of course, was the dominionism. A big word for a simple concept, but apt nonetheless. Michael Farris is easily the best known figure in the homeschool movement, and the promises that fell from his lips were sweet to my parents’ ears, their path greased by the still-raging rhetoric of the culture wars. I heard Farris speak several times, in addition to reading his literature, and one motif he was fond of was that of the Joshua generation. Farris told parents that the public schools were like Egypt, and that they were the Moses generation, taking their children out of Egypt and educating them in the wilderness. Their children, he said, would be the Joshua generation, who like the Israelites’ conquest of Canaan would retake America for Christ, creating a nation built on Christianity and God’s law. My parents bought it hook line and sinker, and looked at my siblings and I as though we were their golden ticket.

Based on this newfound ideology, my parents told us children that the reason dad was working an ordinary job rather than being a pastor, or a missionary, or a politician was so that he and mom could raise up a large number of godly offspring to go out and do all of these things a hundred fold. We were the arrows in my dad’s quiver, and they were raising us to shoot out into the world to make a difference for Christ. This is called Quiverfull, an ideology born and nurtured in the homeschool movement, passed from homeschool mother to homeschool mother and homeschool co-op to homeschool co-op like a disease. My parents were honing us and training us, they told us, preparing us for this mission. Did I mention that this could feel dehumanizing, and stifling? Oh, sometimes it could feel gloriously empowering. But the only dreams we were allowed to have were the ones our parents fed us. Step outside of that, and our parents’ smiles would instantaneously turn to frowns. And believe me, we all knew it would happen. We watched it happen, sometimes to us personally and other times to our siblings.

This leads into my next point—the utter amount of control my parents exercised over all of us offspring. Somewhere around the time I was eight or so, another homeschooling mother passed my mom Michael Pearl’s To Train Up a Child. This child rearing manual urges parents to see any disobedience as outright defiance and to see the parent-child relationship as oppositional. In fact, it goes so far as to instruct parents in how to break their children’s wills—and to threaten that those children whose wills are not broken will grow up to be miserable failures in life. This was all new to my parents, but once again, they took it in as gospel truth. Their homeschool friends all swore by the book, so it must be right—right?

The biggest thing I remember in all this was the utter rage of not being listened to. Back talk was not tolerated. In fact, any questioning of a parent’s word was out of the question. Obedience was to be immediate, complete, and without question. If it wasn’t, it was disobedience. Oh, and obedience was cheerful. Sour faces got us sent to our beds. Normal human emotions were curtailed. Dragging your feet? Complaining? Moping? A spanking, or a timeout, or a hundred sentences to write. You’re trying to explain your case? More swats, more time, more sentences. Shut your mouth, don’t talk back. Don’t question your parents. Obey.

During my teenage years my parents adopted another line fed them by the homeschool movement—that the concept of “teenager” was a modern invention, and contrary to God’s plan for the family. Rebellion was unnatural, and not to be allowed. Questioning was frowned on, and quickly answered with emotional manipulation—the dense fog of disapproval was enough to make the strongest of us buckle and give in. Further, during our teenage years we were expected to bear the responsibility and workload of an adult, but without being given the freedoms of an adult. It was like being two years old, and thirty, in a fifteen year old body. Where we went, who we were friends with, what music we listened to, and what books we read—all was still carefully monitored and controlled. And being homeschooled meant we could never get away. We were smothered under all of it.

But there was more. At a homeschool convention my parents came in contact with the marketing and literature of Vision Forum, a group whose influence has become pervasive in many homeschooling circles. Their literature is passed from homeschool mom to homeschool mom and their speakers get top billing at the main homeschool conventions. Their message is a patriarchal family order that encompasses not just husband and wife but children as well—especially daughters. Words like courtship became commonplace, and the idea that fathers should help their daughters pick their future spouses suddenly became natural. Dating was quickly off the table completely, and we awkward homeschooled teenagers eyed each other warily from across the debate table or co-op room. The idea that you could control and direct your own love life? Unthinkable. Absurd.

And suddenly the male arrows were being fashioned very differently from the female arrows. My brothers were to go out and do great things for Christ, but my sisters and I? We were to be stay at home homeschool moms raising large broods. We learned to cook, and clean, and care for children, seeing our daily lives as junior mothers as practice for our future lives. It was an odd sort of tension we girls inhabited. We were to change the world—but we were to do so by being homemakers and raising a dozen or more children. The hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world. Choice? That’s a dirty word. All that mattered was your god-given role. Any earlier dreams I’d had were cut short and I was soon unable to dream beyond the future my parents so carefully laid out for me. And then there was the whole college thing. I got lucky. Through all of this my parents held onto the value they placed on education, and they sent me, a girl, to college in spite of the warnings against it they received from some quarters. I got an education. Other girls didn’t.

And then there was the huge problem when I began to question and leave my parents’ beliefs and ideology. Having been taught by the literature of the homeschool movement to see me as clay they could mold as they saw fit, they were shocked when I shook myself and chose my own direction. They had been promised the world, and were suddenly coming up empty on their investment. It was like the Greek myth in which Pygmalion sculpted a statue of his ideal perfect woman, and then it came alive. Or at least, it would be like that myth if Pygmalion had reacted with anger and rage when the statue came to life and dared move from the pose in which he carved it. When I began thinking for myself my parents reacted as though they suddenly saw me as broken, ruined. And in some sense I was. They had put everything into making me into this certain specific image, and then I dashed it all by asking questions and making up my own mind. I was like a mirror suddenly shattered into a shower of pieces. All of the plans they had built for me were ruined.

The homeschool movement took my parents, and it twisted them. The literature, the people, the groups, the rhetoric—my parents were drastically changed as a result of their decision to homeschool. The ideas that filtered into our home from the greater homeschool movement had an impact on my life the depth of which it is difficult to express. These ideas shaped how I saw myself, dictated my dreams, and created a fairy future that was dashed the moment I dared stop and really think about all of it. The triumphalist dominionism, the stifling authoritarianism, the all-encompassing patriarchalism—this was the stuff of my childhood. And the wake of destruction that followed was the rot produced by ideologies that so suffuse the homeschool movement that it’s a challenge for even the most independent-minded homeschooler to completely escape their sway.

This is the real legacy of homeschooling on my life. It’s not my academic achievement or the socialization issues I faced as a result of growing up in a bubble. It’s all of this, the things that have left my family damaged and torn even today, temporarily patched back together but a shadow of what it could be. The control, the conformity, the attempt to treat children not as individuals with their own agency but as beings to be molded into ideologically-perfect culture warriors. The emotional manipulation, the feelings of failure, the stunted and half-formed dreams. The pain, the tears, the way my blood pressure raises when the phone rings. The broken relationships, the fear, the anguish at what could have been. The ashes of a life so carefully built that burned down when I came of age, ashes blowing in the wind. I’m building something new today, yes, but the foundation I started on had to be razed and everything begun afresh, with echoes of the past still sounding in my ears, filling my dreams, and clouding my vision.

In some sense, none of this is the fault of homeschooling—but in another sense, all of it is. If my parents hadn’t homeschooled me, everything would have been different. This sounds like a huge claim, but it’s really not. My parents started homeschooling for educational reasons, not religious reasons. All of the stuff discussed above? It hit them after they entered the world of homeschooling, not before. And because my parents never stopped attending the evangelical megachurch that fit them well when I was small, and not so well as I grew, I can make a bit of a comparative study. By the time I was high school aged, there was a huge gap between me and most of the other kids who attended that church. They dressed like normal teens, listened to Christian rock music, and attended youth group. I didn’t associate with them or befriend them—for one thing, my parents felt the church youth group was too worldly, and for another thing, their social networks revolved around their schools and thus de facto shut me out. Instead, I stayed close to the homeschooled children of a few of my parents’ friends who had also attended the church from way back. We were different—they were like me. If we hadn’t been homeschooled, we would have been like those youth group kids. Evangelical, yes, but normal evangelical.

The most prominent leaders and organizations of the homeschool movement—the curriculum publishers, the speakers, the conferences—are currently awash in all of this toxic ideology. Courtship, and blanket training, and stay at home daughters, and the Joshua generation—it’s pervasive in many—if not most!—homeschool circles. Of course, there has always been dissent from this cocktail of ideas: you’ll find that while rural areas often only have Christian homeschool groups and co-ops, more liberal areas have two (or more) parallel networks—a larger Christian homeschooling community and a smaller secular one. The growing number of people homeschooling for purely practical and pragmatic reasons, combined with the advent of the internet, which has challenged the gatekeeper status of groups like HSLDA, may help turn the tide. But at the moment the messaging and the networking, all of that is still controlled by Farris et al., and that means that all of this—the dominionism, the authoritarianism, and the patriarchalism—is insidiously widespread among homeschoolers. And that means that when ordinary evangelical parents like mine enter the homeschool movement, they open themselves up to being pulled into a toxic cocktail of beliefs that may forever change their lives—and with them the lives of their children.

This is the true legacy homechooling has had on my life.

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