Two Messages That Children Internalize That Contribute To Bullying In Patriarchal Church and Homeschool Groups

Two Messages That Children Internalize That Contribute To Bullying In Patriarchal Church and Homeschool Groups February 20, 2015
Image NLQ original
Image NLQ original

by Sarah Henderson cross posted from her blog Feminist in Spite of Them

Homeschooled children sometimes experience bullying from peers. Part of this stems from the messages that children absorb about themselves.

1. Children respond to the tiered authority by owning the message that they are the not as good as other people and exist to serve people who appear to be more powerful than they are;

2. Children respond to the opposite message that they are the best and brightest and most privileged and enact that power on others. 

I have mentioned the issue of bullying in homeschool groups in passing in a previous post, but bullying in homeschooling families and homeschool groups is a serious issue. In a well-meaning homeschooling family from a conservative background, there are several patterns, such as adherence to patriarchal family systems and the sense of responsibility held by the parents to teach their children to succeed in life and grow up to be adults with the same mindset and goals as the parents. There is also often a commitment to having a large family. This creates
unique family power dynamics. Depending on how the family works, they will send a message to their children that corresponds with one of the point above: that the child is valued and special, or that the child is part of a plan that has nothing to do with the child.

Socialization has become almost a joke to both sides of the homeschooling debate, but the reality is that children who are homeschooled spend less time with other non-siblings, and sometimes this is even the goal of homeschooling. In patriarchal families, children are often authority-tiered in birth order, although preference in the ranking is sometimes given to boys. Sometimes this happens in large families due to the difficulty in parenting large numbers of children, and mothers bring in older daughters to take on various aspects of homemaking and parenting.

There is a large amount of anecodotal evidence that speaks to how damaging sibling parenting can be. There is a series posted by Heather Doney that tells the stories of sister-moms. Many of the personal stories shared on both No Longer Quivering and Homeschoolers Anonymous also outline the difficulties of being an adult who helped raise their own siblings. Children who are part of this tiered authority find themselves always as part of a ranked system, which is different from the experience of children who attend school, who are grouped with peers in spite of status struggles.

Homeschool groups and church “families” are touted as a significant source of socialization opportunities for homeschooled children. However, this means that children who spend most of their time in a tiered family structure are then tossed together as an artificial peer group and left to find their own status among themselves, which is one of the things that some homeschooling parents say they are attempting to avoid. The source for the information in this post is lived experience.

Children in homeschooling groups and church groups vie for status at the expense of each other, just as children do in public and private schools. They put each other down, and use similar ways of determining popularity as public schooled children do, including appearance, status of parents, ownership of desired items, and overall apparent confidence levels. They sometimes use physical strength to exert control as well. Parents do not always see the bullying but it does take place.

However, homeschooled children in these families are also subject to real responsibility/authority status and a tight social circle that is includes all available peers.

Girls sometimes compete to exhibit which is the more capable parent, and it is not uncommon to see these children carrying other children around, usually their own siblings or the young children of family friends. Because it is valued for girls to learn to perform homemaking tasks, girls are put on display to demonstrate proficiency in cooking and parenting, which creates resentment between peers. Financial struggles are a common problem among families with a stay-at-home mother and many children, so girls find themselves ranked in their peer groups according to whose parents have time to contribute to social activities and by common status symbols such as clothing. These families also share clothing, so children with a lower financial status have to wear the cast-off clothing of the more affluent families.

Very young boys in patriarchal families do not always realize that they are being groomed to take part in a power structure, but they do attempt to exert power over each other as much as public schooled boys do. The big difference here between public schooled children and homeschooled children is that since children tend to be part of a self-regulating system (and the parents are busy) there is not as much supervision and few complaints. As stated above, children either internalize that they exist to serve or exist to control. This results in children who are taught to stick to their ranking and do not usually object to unfairness.

Mental health problems are often not identified and treated in children in these circles, and some of the aspects of patriachal homeschooling life may contribute to the development of mental health disorders. This leaves suffering children even more vulnerable to bullying since children suffering from depression and similar struggles may only appear to be quiet and awkward, whereas in a public school they may have been identified as needing a teacher-mentor or recommended to see a mental health professional. An additional problem unique to church and homeschool groups that prevents children from being protected from bullying is that there is no central figure that children can turn to if their life isn’t working like a teacher or principal. Each parent usually has faith in their own children, and all parents in the church group or homeschool group has faith in their system, and it threatens their choices if the system doesn’t work, so there is simply no room for a bullied child to seek help.

Please share your input regarding the differences between bullying in public schools and patriarchal church and homeschool groups!


Sarah lives in Ontario Canada with her husband and works in the social work field. She was raised in a large independent quiverfull family, who traveled from church to church looking for sympathy for their belief system. She left at age 17 to complete high school and university on her own. She blogs at

She is a member of the Spiritual Abuse Survivor Blogs Network


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  • Nea

    I agree with all of these points. That said, I think there is one vital point that is not here: The patriarchal system praises bullying.

    I mean outright praises it. Both Pearl and Dobson have put in print how parents are supposed to be thrilled to pieces when their kids are bullied and to never, ever, ever, do anything to stop it. That bullying is “the way the world is” and certainly the world these men portray to their own children, as the final arbitrars of meting out violence and giving orders that are to be obeyed instantly OR ELSE.

    Furthermore, both men have more or less put the seal of approval on dogpiling onto whatever child cannot hold up to bullying, in order to “toughen” them. If they aren’t allowed to be physically violent about it, they’ll support emotional violence…

    And it’s not just the Pearls. Gothard seems to have come at this sideways, but with the same result: I am reminded of a Duggar family story where one girl was annoying another, the second one complained, and the parents “fixed” it by telling the bullying victim that she had to buy back her sister’s decent behavior by sacrificing her most precious item to that sister.

    It was “supposed” to make it “not fun” to bully… but none of those kids could have been so sheltered as to not notice that if there’s ever one of the meager personal possessions another sibling has that they want, all they have to do is bully them out of it, secure in the knowledge that if the initial attack doesn’t work, the parents will step in on the bully’s side.

  • Friend

    Even if there were no bullying…

    I attended a very small K-12 school. Later, when I lived in England, my British friends said that such schools did not exist there, because it would be inhumane to trap a child in his or her identity for so long.

    Christian separatist homeschoolers isolate their children far more than any K-12 school.

    Even a hermit crab likes a different shell from time to time.

  • Olivia

    There are also just a lot of the adult “holier than thou” themes that get passed down that lead to bullying. Modestly culture in particular leads to boys targeting any girl they feel is dressed immodestly and they enjoy treating her with judgment and disrespect because they have been taught that she is earning that treatment by no dressing according to their family’s modesty standard. The same goes for the girls, shutting the immodest girl out because she is just “not a good influence on them” and all the while they are engaging in this bullying they are proud of themselves for it, because to them are they are being strong and righteous enough to recognize her sin and keep it far away from themselves.

  • Astrin Ymris

    Re: “…it would be inhumane to trap a child in his or her identity for so long.…”


  • Friend

    I was very surprised to hear this from so many friends over four years in England. People thought that it benefited them to move from a school where they were famous for, say, picking their noses, to a place where they could be known for playing the guitar. An outcast had a new chance to find friends. A popular kid might be challenged to earn that popularity. A kid from a notorious family could have a fresh start.

    And I did feel somewhat trapped, in one building, in one style of school uniform, for ten years. There were eighteen girls in my third-grade class. Ten of us graduated together, in a class of 45 girls.

    Our opinions about one another did not change nearly as much as we did.

  • Astrin Ymris

    Okay for the neurotypical, but for aspies– not so much. The lack of social skills is going to be with you wherever you go, so changing schools doesn’t help. And you miss the possibility of “peer nurturing” developing, because the other girls have learned that you’re no threat in the cutthroat wars for social supremacy, and view shooting fish in a barrel as unsporting.

  • Friend

    You are so right–thrusting children with Asperger’s (and other differences) into a new school can harm instead of helping.

    My concern is that K-12 schools are often considered prestigious, and romanticized, merely for having K-12 on one small campus. I suspect that many parents of kids in K-12 schools never reevaluate whether their child is still thriving in that environment–and that many home-schooling parents (especially religious crazies) don’t reevaluate either.

    The norm in most U.S. public school systems is for children to attend three schools. Do you think that is generally a good model for their social needs? Or is there too much collateral damage?

  • Astrin Ymris

    Well, I went to private, half-day kindergarten because there was no public kindergarten at the time, but after that we had the same school through 8th grade, then four years of high school. Grades 6-8 had their own wing, and unlike lower grades, we changed classes. It seemed to work well enough. I know that when the county wanted to add separate middle schools, parents wanted nothing to do with it.

    I don’t think there’s one right rule for all. Community schools have been shown to have positive results, but some kids may benefit from a fresh start. I believe that there should be flexibility and accommodation of individual needs.