What I Should Have Said 13 Years Ago: Sharon Autenrieth’s Thoughts

HA note: The following piece was originally published by Sharon Autenrieth on her blog Strange Figures. It is reprinted with her permission. Sharon describes herself as a “wife, mom to 5, homeschooler, Christian Education Director, idealist, malcontent, [and] follower of Jesus.”

It was one of my first homeschool meetings, an evening devoted to people like myself:  the rookies. Three veteran couples were there to encourage us, answer our questions, and give us the benefit of their experience.

I don’t recall much from that evening, but I remember one of the veteran dads counseling us, raw recruits that we were, on the importance of discipline in the home. And by “discipline” he meant something very specific. He went on at great length on the virtues of “beating” (his word, not mine) children regularly, abundantly, at the first sign of rebellion. His weapon of choice was the yardstick and he told us that he’d broken many over the years in an effort to drive wickedness and rebellion from the hearts of his children. Teenagers taken in as foster children had also received frequent beatings, something I suspect their caseworkers did not know.

I listened, trying to hide my shock and disgust. I was new to homeschooling, but I’d been parenting for almost a decade and there was no way I would be taking this father’s advice. I pitied his children; wondered about his quiet wife who nodded and smiled as he shared his “wisdom”; marveled that he could seem so jolly while describing the physical abuse of children entrusted to his care.

But here’s what I didn’t do: I didn’t speak. I didn’t say, ”Excuse me, but what you are describing doesn’t sound like discipline. It sounds like abuse.” I didn’t say, “I’ve been licensed for foster care myself and what you’ve done to your foster children is illegal. I’m going to report you.” I didn’t even meekly suggest that perhaps “biblical” parenting needn’t be so violent. I was silent because he was a veteran and I was a newbie. I was silent because he was a man and I was a woman. I was silent because I didn’t want to make a scene or alienate others in the group. I was silent because I was a coward.

Now, many years later, I know that I sinned that night. I had an opportunity to speak up on behalf of mistreated children and I didn’t take it. Perhaps no one would have listened to me or taken me seriously, but I still should have spoken. I knew that what I was hearing was not just wrong but evil, and I let it go unchecked, unquestioned. I listened as evil was called good – and I did nothing.

This week I fell down the internet rabbit hole into a world of what might be called “homeschool survivor” blogs. The stories are awfulangrypainful to read. I love homeschooling and my immediate response to criticism of the homeschool movement is defensive. I want to shout, “We’re not like that! We’re not like that! We’re not like that!”

But the truth is, some of us are like that. And it’s time that we confessed it, and started holding each other accountable.

The problem is rarely motive. Homeschoolers, as a category, take parenting very seriously. We don’t set out to damage our children, but to do the very best for them that we possibly can. That very seriousness can be a trap, I think. We are prone to particular temptations, many of which are expressed in this article by a homeschool veteran, Reb Bradley. You’d think that doing something so nonconformist (homeschooling) would mean that homeschoolers would be nonconformists generally, but that hasn’t really been the case. There is tremendous pressure to get it right – to turn out ideal children, raised in ideal families – and we are easy targets for experts who promise to deliver results. So we listen to the loudest voices and quiet our consciences and treat our children like objects to be manipulated and molded into polished, shiny finished products rather than as the complicated, untidy, beautiful persons they were born to be.

The problem is not homeschooling as an educational option. And further muddying the waters, the problem is that there’s more than one problem. Here are a few of them:

We confuse external control with internal transformation.

We crave the approval of other homeschoolers so much that we ignore the warning bells going off in our own homes.

We emphasize parental rights and parental authority to such a degree that we dehumanize our children.

We swallow poison as long as it’s coated in Bible verses.

I don’t want to be party to that anymore. It’s not enough to say, “Well, I don’t do that to my children, and other people’s children aren’t my responsibility.” Homeschool friends: do we accept that argument when we’re talking about abortion, or child pornography, or child sexual abuse? Do we feel off-the-hook as long as it’s only other people’s children who suffer, and not our own? I’m as stubborn about parental rights as the next homeschooler. I do not want someone from the government telling me how to raise my children. But perhaps that means we take responsibility for speaking truth to each other, for being honest even about our failures, and for listening to the children our community has raised.

I repeat: the problem is not homeschooling. There is so much potential for good in homeschooling, and every year that potential is realized in thousands of lives. But I’m convinced we can do even better, and it begins with recognizing where we’ve gone wrong. As I read through some of the stories at Homeschoolers Anonymous my heart ached to see how many included abusive doses of “biblical chastisement” or parenting by the “rod”.

So even if I’m 13 years late, I’ll say this now:

That father was wrong. The “biblical model” he was presenting was dangerous and destructive. What he was describing was abusive parenting.  Brutalizing foster children who have already been traumatized and almost certainly have difficulty trusting adults is a special kind of heinous.

You cannot beat sin out of your child; that’s not how spiritual transformation works. What you can do, perhaps, is silence your child out of fear. They may learn to hide their anger, resentment, bitterness, rage, depression and hopelessness from you.

Or perhaps you will discipline your child to death.

“Breaking the will” of a child is a terrible goal, and does not correspond to the way that our kind and merciful Father God deals with us. “A bruised reed He will not break.” Homeschoolers have unwittingly broken many bruised reeds and it’s time to stop.

(Note:  For more stories from former homeschoolers, I suggest Recovering Grace (specifically addresses ATI/Gothardism), Becoming WorldlyDefeating the DragonsElizabeth Esther – and of course, Homeschoolers Anonymous. When it comes to “chastisement,” Elizabeth Esther has done a great job over the years of covering Michael and Debi Pearl, whose To Train Up a Child has been especially influential – and deadly.)

17 comments

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism/2013/04/the-key-to-the-liquor-store.html

    have you read this yet? Homeschooling IS part of the problem just by virtue of the inherent void in accountability on the parents’ part. Maybe homeschooling isn’t directly responsible, in that you don’t magically get a manual when you start homeschooling that says, “Thou shalt beat thy kids senseless,” but it creates an equally toxic environment where the cornerstone is utter parental control over 100% of the children’s lives.

    “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under live robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.” ~C.S. Lewis

    Hm, no wonder Lewis is periodically as equally reviled as Rowling by fundamentalists.

    • Nathaniel,
      I recognize that on a site like this there are going to be plenty of people who think all homeschooling is unhealthy. I can’t agree. I was attracted to homeschooling because I wanted to set my children free from the hive mentality of public schooling (and I’ve had children in and out of public school over the years, including a child in junior high and one in high school this year, so I know some things about contemporary public schooling). I still believe homeschooling is an ideal option for the development of individuality, creativity and independent thought. It may be that we all (homeschoolers) will have to accept more govt. oversight since so many in the homeschool community seem unable to police themselves. I wouldn’t be happy about that, but I’ve come to see it as perhaps necessary for the sake of all our children.

      As for me, I love both Lewis and Rowling. Here’s another Lewis quote along the same lines as the one you gave – it’s a favorite of mine: “She was the sort of woman who lives for others – you can tell the others by their hunted expression.”

      • I don’t think all homeschooling is unhealthy – but whether it is or not is entirely based on what kind of parents are in charge, and the concept of the right to an adequate education goes right out the window with the wrong kind of people, and there’s no way to find out in the public eye until far too late. I’m saying that as someone who WAS homeschooled for about 8 years (middle and high school), but didn’t learn a damn thing that wasn’t my mother’s hours-long rants about her interpretation of some Moody Bible Institute sermon until we finally started going to the local community college. The fact is that homeschooling is the PERFECT context for parents who think that their and God’s authority are the only thing that should matter to their child (and often, God’s is mostly cosmetic) – in other words, power-hungry sociopaths with something to prove, no one to answer to, and an entire Bible filled with parenting advice that borders on crimes against humanity when taken literally. See the Quiverfull movement. At this point, I don’t see homeschooling as an ideal context for anything except continuing another generation of moral inbreeding – if the qualities it fosters really WERE naturally healthy as an educational experience, then the natural response would be standardize it and make it as widely available as possible, IMO. So homeschooling strikes me as ideologically selfish, not least because of those psychopaths running the HSLDA.

        Congratulations on allegedly raising your children to be creative and rational individuals. But story after story after story here will prove that that’s largely because of your own background and values and not because of any innate virtues of homeschooling itself. Homeschooling is a sandbox, and many, many people are unfit for wielding that kind of flexibility at others’ expense, especially their own children, by virtue of the same degenerate qualities that they think they see thriving in the public school system.

      • Nathaniel, for some reason I can’t place this reply below your last comment. I’m sorry for the terrible experience you had. I’m sorry for every terrible experience that is being recorded at this site, and the ones that we’ll never hear.

    • I think it’s important to distinguish general homeschooling from the Homeschool Movement of which this article is discussing. If you talk to most secular homeschoolars, they are shocked at what has gone on in the Homeschool Movement. They are completely different.

      • There are many Christian homeschoolers that are also completely different…and Christians for that matter. The stories I have read on this site are really shocking and horrifying to me. It is sickening that people abuse in the name of Christ. Just because someone claims to be a Christian, doesn’t mean they are. I know a lot of homeschoolers, and none of them are like this. I live in Canada though, maybe it’s just different here.

  • Great thoughts…there’s definitely a lot of pressure not to speak up within homeschooling because of the emphasis on parental rights and privacy.

    I’d like to mention something about the Reb Bradley’s article that you linked. I attended his church in my teens, and am very familiar with his family and teachings. Although that article is a step in the right direction in addressing wrong motivations of homeschooling parents, he unfortunately is still promoting all his abusive parenting techniques (and even says at the beginning of that article you linked, “Bev and I still stand behind what we have taught on parenting in the past.”). In case you aren’t familiar with those teachings, they are very similar to the Pearls methods. I reviewed his book on my blog starting here: http://pasttensepresentprogressive.blogspot.com/2012/08/biblical-parenting-introduction.html.

    • Latebloomer,
      I think I read something you posted about Reb Bradley here? Honestly, I’d never heard of him because reading the post I mentioned. I’ll will certainly read your review, and I would just say – I’m ONLY commenting on what he said in that article, which seemed (as you said) like a step in the right direction. Even if the progress is incrimental, I hope we’ll hear more of the same from those who’ve led the conservative homeschool movement.

      If Bradley endorses something similar to the Pearls (or the Tripps, or the Ezzos), I certainly reject that.

      Thanks for the heads up!

  • Sharon, Good for you. I have been doing the same thing – uncovering my part in the abuse. I did this article a while back while covering the Sovereign Grace Ministries lawsuit in which one of the plaintiff’s, Carla Coe is suing because of physical abuse she incurred. The court documents she was spanked as an adult with her panties down. You will also read that spanking of adult children is common (and my daughter’s and my sad disclosure). This stuff is wicked. The week after I posted the article I was in such a deep, dark emotional state. Wow – the emotions! http://spiritualsoundingboard.com/2013/01/17/sovereign-grace-ministries-patriarchy-and-spanking-of-adult-children/

    • Thank you, Julie Anne. 🙂 I really respect the work you do through your blog. However hopeless this situation may seem to some folks (and I don’t blame them, based on some of the experiences I’ve read about here), I believe that speaking up matters. I followed up this post with another at my blog on why I don’t spank my kids. That’s here:

      http://strangefigures.wordpress.com/2013/04/23/i-dont-hit-and-i-try-not-to-yell/

      Last night I went to a mom’s night out with a bunch of homeschoolers and that post was the talk of the table for a while. The conversation was respectful, some other moms spoke up about why they avoid spanking or why they think the Pearl’s are dangerous. In all of my years of homeschooling it was the first open, helpful conversation I’d ever heard on the subject (among homeschoolers). It just required me being willing to stick my neck out there in print to get it started. And I only had the courage to do that because of people like yourself who have been doing it for a long time.

  • Thank you, thank you, thank you!!! I, too, have regretted not standing up and speaking. One of the beauties of being an older mom, is that I am no longer intimidated by “experts”. Doggone it, I am now an expert. I so wish I’d had someone like me in my life when I was a young mom, and so eagerly soaked up words of “how to raise my children to be godly”…. and messed up.

    I am appalled by some of the stories on this site, and I weep for the children. And for children still experiencing the same things.

    Again, great post.

  • Thank you, Lois! I’m finding the same upside to getting older and having been at this for a long time.

  • Thank you, Sharon, for your post. I too am a homeschool mom of six who just found this site over the last couple of weeks. My heart has been wrenched at reading these stories. I pretty much stayed out of our homeschooling group where we used to live–which would have comprised more of families who may have bought into the lies being spread. I knew from my beginning of parenting when someone gave me a copy of the Pearl’s book that anyone who adhered to that sort of parenting was whacked in my opinion! I never heard of anything specific happening in any family, but now after reading this blog, I have a few that I keep thinking back to and wondering. Now I’m living in a place where it’s so different. I realize that to so many who write on this blog and have these experiences, homeschooling can never be okay. I get that!! But as I look around at the families around me, I see a difference. I see grace. I sat down with our associate pastor’s wife–who is a good friend and also homeschools. Her oldest, 9th grade, is in public school now but she is still homeschooling her youngest two. She had never heard of the Pearl’s, Mary Pride, Reb Bradley, Little Bear Wheeler, anyone that I could throw at her!! 🙂 I was so happy. I knew I was in the right place.

  • Sharon (or anyone!)- if you could recommend 1-2 books on parenting what would they be? I, too, have not liked what I’ve heard in homeschooling circles, but have struggled to find alternatives. Thank you!

    • I’ve heard good things about “Grace Based Parenting” by Tim Kimmel, but haven’t read it. I own “Give Them Grace” & it’s an improvement but the theology is very, very Reformed. If you’re looking for something not explicitly Christian, perhaps “How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk”. I really like “Siblings Without Rivalry” for that specific issue, and “Raising Your Spirited Child”, if you’ve got one of those. I’ve got a couple, and it’s nice to read a book that doesn’t suggest they need to have the strong personality disciplined out of them.

      Anything by William Sears will be a radically different approach than the Pearls/Ezzos/Tripps. Dr. Sears is a Christian but advocates attachment parenting.

      I hope that helps!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s