Training Up Children the Homeschool Movement Way

HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Julie Anne Smith’s blog Spiritual Sounding Board. It was originally published on March 17, 2013.

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Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” ~ Proverbs 22:6

You see that verse?  Probably every homeschool parent heard that verse too many times to count throughout their homeschooling years.  It was engrained in us.  We did not want our children to depart from “the way they should go” and the solution was to “train” our children.  At least that’s what they told us.

Homeschool books from the Smith family library. Photo courtesy of Spiritual Sounding Board.

Homeschool books from the Smith family library. Photo courtesy of Spiritual Sounding Board.

Ever since my spiritual abuse journey, I have been trying to figure out what led our family to that spiritually abusive church and pastor who sued us in an attempt to discover who our primary influencers were over the years. I found that the most influential people in the last couple of decades have been leaders in the homeschool movement who had a spiritual agenda, not necessarily an educational agenda. We have been taught so strongly to “train our children” and some of us did that quite well. We created little obedient and compliant robot children who were polite, respected authority and looked really good in church all lined up in a pew. People always commended us on our beautiful large family.

These influencers not only taught us how to parent, but taught us what they thought was very important:  large families, courtship, modesty and purity, fathers as spiritual heads/priest of the home, mothers as hard-working submissive wives, preparing wholesome meals from homegrown gardens, grinding wheat to make whole grain breads.  The boys were taught how to be boys, play like boys, work like boys, helping their fathers in projects around the house.  Daughters learned traditional homemaking skills that would last them a lifetime when they got married and started families of their own, because that was their ultimate lot in life.  Yes, in many homeschooling families, daughters were discouraged and even forbidden from going to college for any higher level education, they were to stay at home serving dad and their family while they waited to be courted by a young man approved by their father.

True to the homeschooling culture, I did own a denim jumper or two, and I sewed matching jumpers for my daughters who were 7 years apart in age.  My five boys may thank me that they never had matching homeschool uniforms like khaki slacks and polo shirts, but they did manage to always match by having jeans with holes in the knees.

Not only did we raise good obedient children, we invested in our children and pushed them towards educational excellence.  We made sure they were well-versed on the popular homeschool-movement agendas which we adopted as our own:  they knew how to debate creation vs evolution, they were politically involved in their communities, worked on political campaigns, participated in speech and debate classes and competitions, attended worldview conferences, and went on missions trips.  In my family, our kids knew how to evangelize the “right way,” how to defend their faith, and knew the tenants of 5-pt Calvinism inside and out.  Homeschooled students were good students, usually testing years ahead of their peers.  They were accomplished in music, sports, volunteered at Crisis Pregnancy Centers, lobbying at the capital for homeschooling rights, etc.  What more could we ask for?

What many are finding out is that those brilliant robots, when released to the real world, start questioning where they came from, what they believed, where they are going. This is a normal response for young adults. But I’ve seeing a disturbing trend especially among young adults who were raised in this kind of environment. Many of these “trained” adult kids are now venturing 180 degrees in the opposite direction, perhaps in response to the controlled environment in which they were raised, some suffering a host of problems similar to what spiritual abuse victims experience that I deal with so often: mental health issues, addiction issues, etc. There is a lot of heartache among this group.

I feel very responsible for buying into this garbage.  I will continue to speak out against disturbing aspects of the homeschool movement on my blog.  It takes a lot of emotional energy to work up one of these posts because it means I have to admit my failure.  Of course my blog will also continue to be a platform for these precious young adults.  I believe in a way that some of us parents were cult leaders in our families. We were fed an agenda by those home school leaders. We believed it. We saw their perfect families and wanted to emulate what we saw and expected that kind of obedience and educational excellence from our children.  We trained them alright.

Not too long ago, I was asked if I would like to partner with others in a new blog called Homeschool Anonymous.  I was thrilled to be asked because I have attempted to use my blog as a Spiritual Sounding Board to the abuses that I’ve noticed in the homeschooling movement.  Most of the participants in the Homeschool Anonymous blog are former homeschool students, and two of us have been (or currently are) homeschool moms. Interestingly, you will notice that many of the blog participants no longer connect with their Christian heritage. I think conservative homeschoolers will find this shocking. In fact I admit that I am afraid to post about this on my private Facebook page because I have easily 300+ homeschooling friends/moms who might be pretty upset if I mention this big homeschooling secret:  some of our adult kids have departed from the way in which we trained them.

I have long ditched my homeschool mom uniform, the denim jumper.  I refuse to go to state-run Christian homeschooling conferences whose conference leaders get to hand-select vendors and speakers based on their approved religious agenda.  So as I continue to teach our last two kiddos at home, those destructive religious-agenda influences play no part in our homeschooling anymore.

So yes, I am partnering with R.L. Stollar who is an amazing individual and new friend who was completely homeschooled and put together this group.  I have so much respect for what he is doing to help his peers walk through their homeschool journeys and the aftermath or perhaps fallout. I hope Homeschool Anonymous reaches many former homeschooled students and parents and that our collective voices will be heard and considered. It’s never too late, right?  Oh my, parenting is a humbling journey – so, so humbling.

18 comments

  • Thank you! I am sorry it causes so much pain for you. But thank you so much for saying this. It desperately needs to be said.

  • Thank you, Eliza. I agree.

  • Jacquelyn Pillsbury

    I think you have isolated the thing that makes homeschooling dysfunctional (and makes all other forms of dysfunctional parenting, dysfunctional) — parents who want their children to be extensions of their own egos, rather than the individuals God created them to be.

    Some parents do this, sadly, and homeschooling is one tool that some of them use.

    Do the adult children of this parenting REALLY reject their “training?” Or do they simply actualize their parents’ example, seeking to “look good” in the eyes of whoever happens to comprise their social circle as adults?

    • I have completely rejected all my parents ideologies. I went through a long process (five years) where I found ME and not the me I was always told to be. Yes, I’m a hard worker, respectful, etc, but any parent should teach their kids these values.

      I am now a democratic socialist, with more of a liking for humanism than Evangelical Christianity. When your childhood is inundated with demonology and spiritual warfare, striking off the Straight and Narrow is not “easy” or fun for me to rebel against my parents and stake out ME. It’s the hardest process I’ve ever experienced. But I feel so much more stable now than ever. Just this last year, I can say I enjoyed Christmas for the first time in probably 7 years.

  • Jacquelyn Pillsbury

    Nick, I’m sorry that your process was so difficult–and happy that you came out the other end.

    I think my question was more rhetorical than you interpreted it. I could have put it this way: “Even when a child rejects all his parents’ ideology and religious beliefs, does this really constitute ‘departing’ from the way he was ‘trained’ to go?” In a family where the children are expected to fulfill the parents’ egos and make them “look good,” the actual TRAINING the child receives is that it’s really important to look good, which the evangelical Christian would call a “fleshly desire” rather than a godly one. Just like actualizing yourself is often considered a fleshly desire. You left the “fold” and actualized yourself (not saying this is a bad thing), but did you really reject your “training?” Your training consisted of being subservient to other people’s desires and accepting their ideologies (your parents), and now you are doing essentially the same thing except you are the one in charge. Now you can do as you like and develop your own ideology.

    The Christian ideal (as opposed to common practice) is for parents to train their children to serve God and seek His truth. The Christian ideal is for children to continue doing these things when they become adults. So it’s intended to be a life-long habit. I think this is what the verse means when it says “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.” But parents can’t expect their children to serve and seek God when they are adults if the parents have trained them to serve and seek THEM, the parents, while the children are still at home.

    • Ok, I get where you’re coming from a little better now. But I’m confused by your “now you are doing the same thing, but are in charge.” Do you mean now I’m just trying to make people subservient to my ideologies?

  • Hi Nick – -Do you still maintain a relationship with your parents? Do they treat you respectfully now? I know in our abusive church situation, parents were told to sever ties with their “wayward” children. I can’t imagine disowning my adult children. This stuff is so crazy. It is mind-boggling.

    • I’ve never been “disowned,” but it’s really hard to have a conversation about ANYTHING that doesn’t end up being about their cult beliefs. It permeates their worldview. It also triggers my anxiety and I can’t control my anger of we get into it about these things. I noticed that the overwhelming emotions I feel when having these arguments are those of being trapped. My solution as an adult has literally been to just remove myself from these situations (ie physically leave).

      They respect me, as a person, but they don’t try to understand what I believe or why. It took A LOT of fighting to get that modicum of respect though. To them, it seems like I will always be the boy who went to a public university and turned into a liberal, instead of attending ALERT. As an adult, I had to disconnect myself emotionally in order to maintain stability. When I cared what they thought and wanted approval, it always destroyed me. There’s a point where I stopped being vulnerable because I always just ended up hurt.

      So… Not disowned, maybe estranged is a better word.

  • Nick – I asked tough questions and wasn’t sure I’d get a response, so thank you. I’m in a sucky mood right now, but your comment is tearing (both meanings) me up. I am so, so sorry to hear about what you are going through and what you went through as well. I know exactly what you are talking about because it is close and personal to me, too. I feel very bad about what my peers have not done to their kids – – which is just simply loving their children and young adults unconditionally – with no strings attached – – no matter “how they turn out.”

    Yes, by you going to a public university, that is all they need to prove how horrible and corrupt that liberal system is and it only underscores what we parents have been taught all along. Ugh.

    You are probably wise to set some healthy boundaries at least for the time being. I hope they will one day come around because you sound like a great guy and really, it’s their loss to keep treating you like that.

    If you ever want to vent or whatever, I am available. spiritualsb @ g mail

    ~ja

  • Jacquelyn Pillsbury

    Hi, Nick. No, I’m not saying that you’re trying to make other people subservient to your ideologies (although I have known people in similar shoes to yours who did exactly that). I’m saying that the dynamic is the same, just the person in charge is different. When you were a child, you had to do and believe as your parents required. Now you are in charge of yourself, and you can make up your beliefs and lifestyle to suit yourself. So you are still “serving” someone, it’s just you and not your parents anymore.

    I was contrasting that with the evangelical Christian ideal (not always, or even usually, the reality, I know), that says we should seek and serve God, not ourselves or another person. When parents teach their children to seek and serve God instead of the parents, it can become a life-long habit for the child, but if the parents teach their children to serve the parents, then at some point it doesn’t work anymore, as in your experience. The adult child has to make some sort of transition, which may or may not include staying in the faith.

    What do you think about this? My children haven’t left home yet, so I haven’t had the chance to see whether my parenting approach plays out successfully through said transition. 🙂

    • Jacquelyn, I think the problem is when your ‘success’ as a parent is tied up with them continuing as the person you ‘trained’ them to be. True success as a parent is making sure your children know that you love and support them and their choices.

      In Christian theology we reason that God gave man the ability to sin because only a person who can choose not to love can truly love. Give your children the same freedom.

    • I think the problem is when parents teach their children that God’s wisdom, vision, and guidance flows through the husband-father. In the courtship movement, boys and girls are taught that dating is awful and terrible, so they should pursue relationships only with their parent’s permission. And then they don’t kiss until they’re married and have chaperones. I once had to ask a father’s permission to kiss his daughter. Just… weird. So, if you just say “we’re teaching our kids about God,” that’s very vague. You can do all sorts of terrible things to your children in the name of God and Holiness – that’s the point of the blog.

      I think you shouldn’t push God very hard on your kids at all. I think you should teach them to seek out “wisdom and understanding” (to borrow from Proverbs), but that doesn’t mean schooling them in theology and doctrine. I still retain most of the ethical ideals of Christianity in my own life, even if now I see it more like karma than God’s Divine Hand. So how do you distinguish between a “good, normal Christian homeschool” and a “fundamentalist, abusive Christian homeschool”? Maybe that’s a question for you – how do you stop things like what happened to me without losing your right to teach your children what you believe?

  • Jacquelyn Pillsbury

    Hi guys. I agree with both of you to a certain extent. I think we can probably all agree that small children need the wisdom, vision, and guidance of their parents, and that parents basically have no choice BUT to represent God to their children. Even if the parents don’t try to do this, children will still interpret God the way they see their parents at that age. Also, parents have to make most decisions FOR their young children. And children DO need training. Parents can’t escape the reality that their actions will train their children, whether they’re trying to train them or not.

    But I think we can also agree that as a child ages into adolescence, s/he needs to actively start taking over these functions for his/her own life. A parent’s job is to facilitate and encourage this transition. A parent who refuses or otherwise fails in this task is retarding the child’s development and, ultimately, crippling the child’s chances for a successful adulthood.

    But fundamentally, I don’t think this distinction between good and bad parenting is religious in nature. I grew up in a secular environment, and I saw plenty of kids whose parents “engineered” them in the same way that “abusive fundamentalists” try to engineer their kids. It seems to me that it’s a psychological, developmental problem on the part of the parents. Some of these immature, controlling adults become religious and channel their domineering instincts through religion. Others don’t ever become religious, and their controlling natures come out in other ways. So the problem isn’t distinguishing a “good, normal Christian homeschool” from a “fundamentalist, abusive Christian homeschool.” The problem is distinguishing a mature parent with healthy expectations for their children from an immature parent with unhealthy expectations for their children. That leaves a huge can of worms regarding how to tell the difference and how to prevent this form of abuse, of course, but I think those questions are best answered on an individual level as people stretch toward the truth in various ways over the course of their lifetimes.

    • Jacquelyn, I would agree that regardless of ones religious persuasion there are good/bad parents. However, it does seem that the home-school movement attracts a larger percentage of religious adults. Why? I think because like most parents, they desire their kids to avoid mistakes and make wise choices. From the vantage point of a child being raised in a cult, I think many parents motives are pure – but the peer pressure to perform under the guise of being “godly” sucks parents in and turns corrupt. Even a healthy adult can get sucked in – but usually not as deep or for as long.

  • Julie – thank you so much for writing this. As a former home-schooled child I have to tell you that it is very validating to hear a home school mom acknowledge what can happen when parents use home-education to isolate their kids.

    As someone who helps out with a website aimed at healing former students like myself, I know the emotional energy this takes and wear on ones heart. So in the regard I thank you a million times over.

  • Thank you, RBG. Your words mean a lot to me. I’ve learned a lot through my spiritual abuse process both through my former church and through the Homeschool Movement. I had no idea it would lead to this, but I’m thankful to be free from the clutches of that destructive movement. If my story helps others, it lessons the pain a bit.

    • Hello, Julie I want to thank you for the above much needed article ! Spiritual abuse is so rampant. I am what you’d call a church exiter. My early church experiences were with marginal ministries centered in Pentecostal or Assembly of God churches. It was up in Northern California decades ago, when I was a young adult during the Jesus movement of the 70’s. Again and again, I’d encounter crazy legalism, and savage abuse of children and babies. I was dealing with Southern fundamentalism, but I never heard terms like “Quiverfull” but saw all the thing bloggers and commenters at HA describe- long dresses, teen marriage, no makeup, pants, etc. I found HA while researching spiritual abuse/religious child abuse. I’m so glad I did, as I felt so creeped out by these Fundies over the years. THEY give Jesus and God bad names, by the way-NOT talking about the the traumas they so gleefully/grimly inflicted !! I had to snort in disgust when reading that the bloggers were often commanded not to recount what happened to them. The Fundies in question never help God’s reputation, just provoke revulsion from outsider and when said outsiders protest Fundie behavior, they cry ” Persecution ! Persecution !” Then go on blithely,strutting about in righteous stubborness. Yeah, sad to say, I know these types all too well. Though I never quit my Christian Basics, I did quit churches-organized Christianity. It was either THAT, or end my walk all together. I really did not want to do that. I’m used to praying to God, and was a former pagan anyway. The other spectrum of abuse is over at the hip churches, like Victory Outreach. It’s a very money obsessed(ike the above)sexed up church, where ex-gang members, homeless are used as live -in slaves, in the men’s/ women’s group homes. It should never BE this way !

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