Children’s Rights and Homeschooling: Patrick Farenga’s Thoughts

Children’s Rights and Homeschooling: Patrick Farenga’s Thoughts

One of the reasons John Holt, a secular founder of the homeschooling movement, decided to fully support homeschooling was his hope that parents would be more likely to work patiently and differently with their children at home than teachers in school can, and would therefore learn from the children what is and isn’t working. Holt’s ideas about homeschooling are probably very different from what many members of Homeschoolers Anonymous experienced: Holt didn’t want to bring the techniques and concepts of school—which he showed in his books weren’t working in school anyway—into the home. “Don’t turn your home into a miniature school,” Holt advised in 1981 when he wrote his only book about homeschooling, Teach Your Own.

After years of working in schools Holt was appalled at the gross incivility, mindless activities, and outright meanness inflicted upon children in the name of education. One of the ways he imagined that things could be improved for children was to promote children’s rights, since his own efforts made him realize the futility of trying to make meaningful change within the school system (which is still reforming itself 32 years since Teach Your Own appeared). Holt wrote a book that describes how and why giving children rights makes practical sense: Escape From Childhood: The Needs and Rights of Children (1974; reprinted 2013). It was controversial when it was published, causing both liberals and conservatives to condemn Holt’s ideas that children should be allowed to do pretty much what any adult may legally do.

Up until 2012, 9 out of 10 of Holt’s books were still in print. Escape From Childhood is the only one of Holt’s books that I have never been able to interest another publisher in; all editions of the book have been published by HoltGWS since the original publisher let it go out of print. Clearly, this is not a topic mainstream people want to engage with but, as I’ve learned over the years, it is vitally important if we want to find other ways to help children and their families get out of bad situations besides creating more layers of child protective service agencies.

Many of the ideas Holt puts forth in Escape are to prevent tyrannies at home and in society, and they are based on our Bill of Rights, thereby grounding all people to the same rights and responsibilities. However, Holt adds a new dimension to the concept of rights to account for children’s inexperience and their need to learn from the choices they make over time. Rather than just give children the rights of citizenship all at once beause they have turned 18, Holt offers a framework where children are able to move in and out of the “walled garden of childhood” as they feel ready and able to, so they can test the waters of responsibility and swim, or decide to wait for another day if the responsibility is too heavy on them now. Holt felt the best way to get good at making choices is to make a lot of genuine choices and determine what worked best for you. Right now our society denies young people responsible choices, while expecting them to assume this same responsibility at an arbitrarily determined age. This is the essence of Holt’s argument, though I urge you to read his book and learn about the history of childhood and all the nuances about rights, children, families, and primary and secondary guardians that Holt presents.

The issue of children’s rights is large, but I want to focus specifically on child abuse and homeschooling. Holt deals with abuse from several angles in the book, including the adult points of view. For example, he discusses the burden of having children and how the authority of the old is diminishing, but Holt presses the case for why adults need to relinquish some of their authority in order to provide children the opportunity to grow independently.

. . . to expand protection against abuses of authority without diminishing authority, is impossible, a contradiction in terms. There can be no adequate protection against the abuse of authority, of parents or the state, except to give the victim the right to escape it.

The authority that Time has in mind when it talks about the “psychic benefits of parental authority” is not natural authority but only the power to compel, threaten, punish, and hurt. The fact is that children can be and are regularly punished, by parents and the law, for any of the reasons, and the same reasons for which slaves used to be punished—for talking back, for “disrespect,” for disobedience, for being at large without permission, for running away—in short, for doing anything that might imply that they think they have any freedom or rights at all. (p. 153)

Escape From Childhood is full of examples of how children, from the mentally challenged to compliant overachievers, are often hurt or neglected by adults who, “for their own good” force them to do things the children would rather not do, so I won’t labor the point here. However, it is important to note that Holt wrote this in 1974, not knowing anything about homeschooling as we know it; he saw all children in society as being mistreated. Holt was willing to take the chance that by supporting homeschooling some children will be raised by parents whose views of children and education are radically different from the self-actualizing vision of learning Holt supports. Holt hoped that most homeschooling parents would not be so obedient to the demands of modern educational theory or religious dogma and would instead learn directly from their children what was and wasn’t working for them, and make adjustments accordingly.

Unfortunately, many adults seem willing to sacrifice their relationship with their children upon the altar of education and dogma, so I’m not surprised that now, as adults, children whose lives were insecure and violent at home now want to sacrifice homeschooling upon the altar of education and dogma. However, I urge you to take a step back and reconsider strategy and tactics.

It is easy for me to imagine Homeschoolers Anonymous becoming a typical political group, uniting anti-homeschooling forces under the banner of regulating homeschooling to protect homeschooled children from abuse. This will certainly result in an increase of professional educators’ and government reach into people’s homes, which will lead to the exact opposite of what Holt advised: our homes will become miniature schools run by the state. Your anger at being physically and emotionally abused as children, and then, as adults, being outcast by the homeschooling community for publicly noting your suffering and wishing to ameliorate it for a new generation of homeschooled children, is perfectly understandable. However, homeschooling does not cause child abuse. Being a tight-knit or loose-knit family doesn’t cause child abuse; child abuse occurs in public and private schools, churches, sports, the entertainment field, in all professions. It is a problem that is much bigger than homeschooling and we should treat it as such.

I urge Homeschoolers Anonymous to recognize the fluid nature of homeschooling regulations and laws in the United States and how many of the court decisions that allow alternatives to compulsory attendance in public schools are based on religious exemptions that are tied to preserving traditional ways of life (Amish, Mennonite, and so on). It is unlikely at this time in our history that the courts are going to rule against religious freedoms. Further, many adults in the United States appear to support corporal punishment—paddling is explicitly allowed in public schools in 19 states—and its widespread, though no less punishing, variant:  time outs in closets, padded rooms, and so on. It also needs to be noted that invasive practices such as electro-shock therapy for “difficult” children are permitted in many private institutions in states that otherwise ban corporal punishment in public facilities, so the situation is not easily solved by changing existing laws.

Rather than battle homeschooling regulations head on, with the real danger of creating more regulations for secular homeschoolers and strengthening the religious exemptions that permit families to prevent their daughters from aspiring to high school or college and keep their sons in line with stern obedience to authority, Homeschoolers Anonymous can build on the do-it-yourself model that homeschooling embodies. The prospect of increased scrutiny by outsiders keeps many abusive situations from being publicly acknowledged, and homeschooling is no exception. However, I think Homeschoolers Anonymous is correct to sound the alarm now so we can create awareness and solutions about this difficult issue that is different than what we’ve seen to date from other institutions. Like the leaders in the Vatican, the BBC, Penn State, and numerous other institutions, homeschooling’s leaders can easily fall prey to the means (ignore or cover up the abuse) justifying the ends (the institution continues to flourish despite the ongoing abuse, which the institution says it is handling in its own mysterious way). Like you, I refuse to see homeschooling freedoms preserved upon the broken bones and dashed hopes of children, and I hope we can get others to agree to offer help and enforce existing abuse laws rather than accept the status quo as the only way to preserve homeschooling freedoms.

Child abuse is a major, ugly issue that is difficult to discuss, especially among homeschoolers who are fearful of government intrusions into their lives. We tend to dismiss child abuse in homeschooling circles because most of “us” are “good people” or “good Christians.” But the reality is there is some child abuse going on in homeschooling, just as it goes on in schools and homes all around the world. To have the courage, as Homeschoolers Anonymous does, to stand up and call out an injustice being done to an unrepresented minority, children, is an important first step. Showing how this injustice is perpetuated in practice can help parents and children see that their situation is not normal and they are stuck in a bad homeschooling situation. Homeschoolers Anonymous can then provide support for dialog within their family, healing, or escape routes, among other options. It is important to let children and spouses know they are not alone and that others have navigated this path. The Underground Railroad was built and functioning for many years before the Emancipation Proclamation was made law, and I think we need to remember that.

Building the moral and legal case for children’s rights should not be a single, high-stakes courtroom battle focused on homeschooling, but a tactical approach focused on helping children and spouses find ways to get out of abusive situations and a strategic one of uniting with other groups that seek to end corporal punishmentnot homeschooling—for children in society. We have a long tradition at HoltGWS of being against corporal punishment (scroll to the bottom of the page) and the list includes a Christian homeschooling group opposed to hitting children (Parenting in Jesus’ Footsteps).

I thank Homeschoolers Anonymous for the opportunity to express some of my views on children’s rights and homeschooling. There is so much more to say; I’ve only just scratched the surface with these remarks. However, I look forward to seeing the creative and powerful solutions you will make regarding children’s rights based on your collective experiences.

For further reading:

Escape From Childhood: The Needs and Rights of Children is available on Kindle: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00B42K3LE

Escape From Childhood will be also available as a printed book from Amazon as of June 1, 2013.

About the author:

Patrick Farenga.

Patrick Farenga.

Patrick Farenga started work with John Holt in 1981 and published Growing Without Schooling magazine and numerous other publications related to homeschooling, unschooling, and learning outside of school from Holt’s death in 1985 until 2001. Farenga and his wife homeschooled their three daughters, who are now adults. He continues to keep Holt’s ideas alive by writing, speaking, and publishing through HoltGWS LLC and www.JohnHoltGWS.com.

9 comments

  • Hi, Pat! I am one of many home school moms in FL that bought books from you in the early 90s.

    I disagree that more regulation will necessarily mean invasion of privacy and/or school authority to recreate school at home. The Florida law, for example, only needs the loophole for ‘private schools’ closed and it could be a model for the nation. I would like to add an annual physical exam/eye exam (parents could pick their own doctor and just have a form printed off from the local school district to sign) be turned in with the annual evaluation/portfoloio review/standardized test scores. Bringing back the child abuse affadavit would also be a good thing (HSLDA buried that idea; because even convicted child abusers should be free to home school?).

    We have great laws in FL thanks to Brenda Dickinson, but other states have NO REQUIREMENTS of any kind! No notice of intent, no evaluations of any kind, no annual notice that a child is still alive, no assurance that a child is being educated/cared for/fed. Hannah Thompson wasn’t even being FED.

    Where was the outrage from the home school community? Where was the rush to transparency and accountability that would prevent this sort of thing from happening again? All I heard were crickets and “No True Homeschooler” BS.

    But I do very much respect your work and your opinion. Thank you for all your efforts on behalf of children. You helped make my home school a better place. ❤

  • Pat, I’m an ardent advocate of youth rights. I don’t understand your article from a youth rights perspective.

    In the 1860s, would you have advocated not freeing the slaves because it was unpopular, but suggested people aid the underground railroad effort? My understanding is that ending slavery helped millions of people who otherwise would have continued in slavery their whole lives. The Underground Railroad freed only 100,000 over the course of its existence.

    I hope that someday in the not so distant future, children may attain full legal rights. I believe John Holt would agree with me that homeschooling is a child’s right, not a parent’s right. I hope you can stand with me in seeking to have this legally recognized. If the most prominent youth rights advocates do not stand up for the rights of children, who will?

  • I agree with Pat 100% on the fact that children need more respect and consideration in society at large but I feel that like any minority or at-risk group, in order to do right by them you need regulations in society protecting them. Wanting homeschool regulations is certainly not anti-homeschooling and I don’t think it is an accidental threat to homeschooling either or a challenge to traditional ways of life.

    Should we be mainly concerned as to whether regulations are currently political feasible or not or that the fundamentalists will find another loophole to dig down into, or should we be concerned with encouraging people to do the right thing? I think that homeschooling is well established enough now that it won’t just blow away in the wind. I also think that the do-it-yourself model works well for the people who generally take responsibility but since many don’t, the “honor system” as a whole is not good policy. We need more than that.

    However, I truly do appreciate Pat speaking out about children’s rights. It’s sad that its something that still needs speaking out about, but it certainly does. Pat’s perspective on the place in society that children should occupy stands in stark contrast to what the HSLDA stands for and I thank him for sharing it.

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  • Thanks, everyone, for such thoughtful comments. Shadowspring makes a good point, and I want to clarify my position: I don’t think all regulations are bad, but how they are made and who will enforce them is key: homeschooling is growing and doing well in MA despite HSLDA labeling MA one of the hardest states to homeschool. We’ve worked hard to keep homeschooling at the local control level, whereas HSLDA prefers to have a single law or regulation they can defend or use in a state legislature. This can work for some (apparently that’s the situation in FL, right?), but not for other states. The whole state’s rights issue gets tied up in this discussion, too.

    This is also why I don’t think forming a national group and descending upon each state with a regulatory solution is a good idea; it is not respectful of the state’s homeschoolers. I think it is up to the people in the state to make their homeschooling rules, not outsiders. This is why I appeal to you to focus on working with existing groups and focus on child abuse, not homeschooling regulation. I think you will get more support, at least from the homeschooling community, if you are viewed as fighting against child abuse rather than fighting for homeschooling regulation.

    Becca, I am for an underground railroad AND for freeing children/slaves whenever possible. It doesn’t have to be an either/or. I think I’ve been consistent on this. However, politically, just as the gay rights movement has shown, it takes decades of awareness and exposure to the issue before the public hits a tipping point and decides to rectify the injustice. That’s where I’m coming from. HA is just starting to expose this issue and I think it is important that you are; but awareness and support for such a touchy, difficult issue isn’t going to emerge fully for some time.

    I hope I’m wrong; I’d love to be wrong on that. But already your push for regulation has created a backlash from homeschoolers: when I typed “homeschoolersanonymous.com” to come and check these responses I was taken to a site that trashes your work: “There is another group by the name of “Homeschoolers Anonymous” who ironically are not anonymous. The group leaders are seeking media publicity for themselves by exploiting stories of abused victims. They are aspiring journalists who are using damaging tactics in order to gain career opportunities.”

    I hope your efforts are not ignored by homeschoolers who think you use “damaging tactics,” and won’t be co-opted by those who want to see homeschooling go away or be regulated just like school (FYI: http://www.helium.com/items/1046861-the-case-against-unschooling).

    Further, Holt is on record for supporting parents’ rights, too (see Teach Your Own). The rights question is complicated by the dependent nature of young children, among other things (which I’d like to explore at some time in depth if any one is interested).

    Heather writes, “that like any minority or at-risk group, in order to do right by them you need regulations in society protecting them.” The issue is a bit deeper, though, since there are already regulations/agencies/laws that protect children from abuse. They don’t work well, I agree; but to address child abuse through homeschooling regulations is a Rube Goldberg solution to me: better to speak directly about paddling, forcing girls to be second-class citizens, and so on, than to think by getting each family to file an education plan and be evaluated you are saving a child from abuse. Certainly we need to talk about how child abuse can occur in homeschooling—and your testimony is powerful—but politically I think you should be more focused on tactics that will make more homeschoolers agree with you than disagree, and tactics that clearly indicate you want homeschooling to thrive, but not child abuse.

    I also want to add that what also makes this a complex issue is the very notion of asking the state to protect special groups of people. The law should treat everyone equally, but the “protecting-at-risk-people” thinking creates exceptions, and so children, under our current law, are not allowed to own property, get a fair trial by jury (in PA, there were two judges who got kickbacks for sentencing kids to juvenile detention centers), and so on. Sometimes our solutions create worse problems, which is why I urge you to think outside the box even more on this important and difficult topic.

    Don’t stop talking about the issue and do keep stirring things up, but do be sensitive to the contexts you are operating in and consider changing course if you’re not winning hearts and minds.

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