I’ve talked a lot about the fundamentalist cult I was raised in, but something I don’t very frequently talk about here is my experience with the conservative religious homeschooling movement. For many people, the conservative religious homeschooling movement was what sucked their families into fundamentalist and cult-ish mental frameworks, but that’s not what happened for my family. My mother started homeschooling me because my kindergarten teacher held a séance in class, and the DoD school was the only educational option besides homeschooling. By the time we moved back Stateside and had more options, my mother realized that homeschooling was allowing me to excel academically in ways that other options wouldn’t– academically, that remained true through high school and college, although academic success came with its own drawbacks.
However, homeschooling was an integral part of the cult (those who didn’t homeschool received horrible condemnation), and the ideologies we embraced are consistent with a more mainstream homeschooling experience. Even for families that didn’t have children, or didn’t homeschool, the ideologies of the movement found its way into everyday interactions.
One of the popular elements of the conservative religious homeschooling movement that appeared in the church-cult was the belief that “teenage adolescence” is a modern societal construct and is a completely unnecessary stage. I can remember all the arguments for this vividly– how men and women married extremely young; in “fact,” women in early America very frequently married as soon as they got their periods at twelve or thirteen (this is false: the average age of marriage for a Puritan woman was 23, as young as 20 in South Carolina). Indentured servitude and apprenticeship were exalted as prime examples for how young men ought to behave– by learning a trade as young as 10 or 12 (and we were supposed to ignore the exploitative and abusive nature of child labor).
While teenage adolescence and the “delayed adolescence” seem to be results of our modern age, the concept that because it hasn’t been in practice since the Medieval ages makes it unhealthy . . . bothers me, for what I hope are obvious reasons.
Being a teenager, for me, was a difficult experience. I was not an “adult,” so I was therefore not permitted to interact with or engage with adults except as an inferior child, so the other option was to interact with children– but as an adult. In my environment, this forced me to sit at the “children’s table” during social gatherings, acting as a monitor or babysitter, but neither was I permitted to act as a child in other settings. I was expected to behave as an adult, was given the responsibilities of an adult, but was not allowed to have any privileges of an adult. I was not permitted to go anywhere on my own, without my parents having explicit knowledge of exactly where I was going and when I was returning. The only time I was not with my parents I was being closely monitored by other parents.
I was not allowed to exercise the ability of making my own decisions about what I would wear (all clothing had to be tried on and approved by my father immediately following its purchase), how I would style my hair, if I could wear make-up, or when I would go to bed (I had a “bed time” of 9 o’clock until I was 16, and 10 o’clock until 18). I was not allowed to have a private space– my bedroom door was to remain open at all times, and I was discouraged from being in my room for extended periods. I could not “disappear” to my room when upset or hurt– it was considered a cowardly withdrawal, and I was forced to immediately control and dismiss my hurt feelings and interact with my family as if nothing had ever happened. There were many moments that I would curl into the fetal position on my bed and desperately wish that I could just get in my car and drive for an hour or two without explaining where I’d be going or when I’d be back.
Perhaps one of the most demeaning elements of my teenage experience was a nickname I earned during one of the few times I was allowed to interact with adults. We were playing cards, Phase 10, I think, and I did something that seemed “uppity” or arrogant to the adults at the table. I don’t remember what it was, but, the response of one of the adults at the table, a woman I admired greatly, was to call me “sub-adult.”
Unfortunately, this nick-name made the rounds among the other adults at church, and it continued to haunt me well into my twenties. The people who used it probably did so unthinkingly, and they had no idea how much it stung, how much it hurt, and how I had to fight back tears every time I heard it. It was used to remind me of my place– I was not an adult, but neither was I child, and neither was I allowed any of the attitudes, practices, relationships, or experiences of a teenager.
To me, being called “sub-adult” represented absolute failure because my success as an individual was measured by how “adult” I could be. I was well-behaved when I acted how an adult was expected to act. I was articulate because I could talk like an adult. I was responsible because I could shoulder the burdens of an adult. I was “good” in as much as I behaved as neither adult nor child nor teenager. I could not have angsty, emotional moments because that was what a “teenager” would do. I could not disagree with any adult, because that was perceived as “teenage rebellion.” “Teenagers” were the ones who thought they “knew better,” but they were obviously wrong. “Teenagers” made destructive decisions. Teenagers had crushes. Teenagers argued. Teenagers talked back. Teenagers disagreed. Teenagers wore outlandish clothes. Teenagers didn’t practice discernment. Teenagers were naïve. Teenagers were heedless, directionless, purposeless. Teenagers thought they were capable of being autonomous and independent. Being a “teenager” equaled being incomplete and unhealthy.
I had a childhood– a healthy, amazing childhood. My parents were, and are, amazing parents– I love them, and have a good relationship with them today. The problem is that by the time I was a teenager, we’d been in the fundamentalist cult for four years, and we had collectively bought into this idea that “being a teenager” was somehow a sub-standard way of approach to those years between twelve and twenty. I was immeasurably proud of my status in this environment– I can’t tell you how many times I parroted the line that “I already knew that my parents know more than me,” or that I’d never had a “rebellious phase.” I could take care of myself– I did all my own schoolwork with practically no supervision by highschool, I could cook, I could clean, I was amazingly dedicated to practicing piano, all with little or no pressure from my parents. But, somehow, perversely, I was also proud of the fact that I was inferior to adults and knew my place, and knew better than to question those who God had placed in authority above me. I respected the “hoary head.”
The biggest problem with all of this is that because I never practiced any sort of rebellion whatsoever, I was actively discouraging myself from developing my own thoughts and opinions about things. Oh, I would have told you that my beliefs were my own, that I knew what I believed for myself, but I would have been lying. I didn’t have individuality or autonomy. I listened to the music my parents listened to, or the music expressly approved by them. I watched the movies they watched. I held the political opinions they did. I argued what they argued. I didn’t have access to any of these things as myself, but as a “sub-adult” version of my parents.
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Samantha grew up in the homeschool, patriarchy, quiverful, and fundamentalist movements, and experienced first-hand the terror and manipulation of spiritual abuse. She is now married to an amazing, gentle man who doesn’t really get what happened to her but loves her anyway. With him by her side and the strength of God’s promises, she is slowly healing.
NLQ Recommended Reading …
‘Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment‘ by Janet Heimlich
‘Quivering Daughters‘ by Hillary McFarland
‘Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement‘ by Kathryn Joyce