Homeschooling and Sibling Relationships

HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Libby Anne’s blog Love Joy Feminism. It was originally published on Patheos on June 5, 2013.

The homeschool literature that my parents read promised them that homeschooling would create perfect sibling relationships among us children, and make us all especially close and really good friends with each other—unlike those public school kids’ distant relationships with their siblings, and rivalries rather than friendships, of course. I want to take a moment, then, to talk about sibling to sibling relationships in my family. This is kind of embarrassing, to be honest—I’m not going to come off so well here.

It’s true that we kids played together all the time growing up. We sort of had to—there wasn’t usually any other option. I mean sure, we had people over, but most of the time it was just us, and so we were each other’s playmates. I have so many memories of exploring creeks, building lego cities, and chasing each other across the pond. I could go on and on—we really did have great times. But here is my first caveat—I’ve found that most of my friends today who were public schooled also had great adventures with their siblings. Sure, they weren’t around each other for quite as many hours of the day, but it’s wrong to think that they didn’t also explore creeks together, build lego cities together, and chase each other across a pond or pool. In fact, come to think of it, I had cousins growing up who went to public school (and lived far away so we very rarely saw them), and I know for a fact that they did all of those things regularly.

Now, anyone who thinks that homeschooling magically eliminates sibling rivalry is sorely, sorely confused. I’m having troubles thinking of how to easily describe it, but we had sibling rivalries, and lots of them. There were literally three years when one of my brothers and I fought every time we had to spend more than half an hour together (which meant it happened multiple times a day, of course). We just set each other off, somehow. One of my sisters and I just had such completely different outlooks that we ended up permanently at odds—she resented me for being a goody-goody, and I resented her for not being the picture perfect Christian homeschool kid. There were several sisters in a row at one point, and this didn’t always work out that well—there were plenty of times when some of them tore down the others, continually, and with no real explanation. But beyond all this, as I’m going to explain, I actually think that in our case homeschooling served to exacerbate sibling rivalry.

For one thing, we kids fought over friends. See, rather than having individual friends our family generally got together with other like-minded homeschool families as families. So, say, the Smiths and their five kids would come over, or the Joneses and their nine kids, and we’d just play with whoever was somewhere around our age. In this process, I stole friends from my close-in-age-sister. Twice. And once I took a friend who by age probably should have been hers, but I got to her first and monopolized her. And no, this didn’t make for much happy-making between my sister and I. But, well, there were a limited number of friends available to us, so we fought with each other over them, and I usually won. If we’d been in school, we would have been in separate classes and had our own individual pools of friends.

In addition, because we were homeschooled we siblings had to spend 24 hours a day together. Sometimes this worked out great, but sometimes we got on each other’s nerves. A lot. A very, very lot. I suspect that if we had had more time apart from each other we might have grated on each other less. It would have given us a break. It would have meant that we could each have our own space and our own things—something we didn’t really have, and something we often sorely needed.

Next, bullying. Talking about bullying is rather difficult because, well, I was the bully. My parents followed the Pearls’ child training methods, which they came to after another homeschool family recommended them. Based on these methods, they gave us older kids the authority to spank the younger ones. I was never sadistic or anything, but I sure wasn’t very nice about it, and I learned after coming of age and leaving home that many of the younger ones saw me as a bully and had come to hate me. Only, in this case I had been a bully they couldn’t get away from. Normally, kids who are bullied at school have a respite at home. Not so my siblings. Sadly, I’ve seen this same pattern copied by others of my siblings, and even today, among those of my siblings still living at home, the older ones are authorized to spank the younger ones. In some ways, it’s rather like parent-approved bullying. As I’ve written before, I deeply regret my involvement in this. Sure, this pattern can exist without homeschooling, but in our case it was a pattern my parents implemented based on the literature and teachings of the homeschool movement, and not something I think they would have adopted had they not homeschooled.

There’s another issue I should probably discuss as well—as junior mom, I had my favorite among the younger kids. I favored her, and the other kids knew it. In fact, more than once when I was presiding as judge over an altercation the other children accused me of taking my favorite’s side just because she was my favorite. And it was probably true. What’s saddest to me about this is actually what happened after I left home—that special relationship didn’t last. My favorite felt I’d abandoned her when all I’d done was left for college—but she was too young at the time to understand. And then things blew up between myself and my parents and there was a long gap when I didn’t visit home at all, and was afraid to have too much contact with my siblings for fear of risking my parents’ disapproval. I wish I still had a special closeness to the girl I mothered as a teen, but it’s gone now and rebuilding it is hindered by a lack of trust. Perhaps this is something specific to me, but I think it suggests that the junior mother-favored little sibling dynamic common in so many homeschool families I knew growing up wasn’t really so healthy as we thought it was.

And now we come to today.

Today, I’m extremely close to several of my adult siblings—but I’m close to them not because of being with them 24/7 growing up but rather because we were bound together by adversity as young adults. These specific siblings also went through problems with my parents when they became adults and started making their own choices, and during this time we cried on each other’s shoulders, blew off steam in long phone conversations, talked about out our backgrounds have affected us, and just generally were there for each other—and we still do this today. The interesting thing is that these aren’t even necessarily the siblings I was closest to as a kid. As for the kids still at home, my relationships with each of them are weird because if I actively try to undermine what my parents are teaching them, my parents will likely limit my contact with them, and avoiding things that will undermine what my parents are teaching them means avoiding talking about basically everything I’m interested in.

I don’t think homeschooling enhanced sibling to sibling relationships in our family. I’m not saying there weren’t some good things—I did spend more time playing with my siblings than public schooled children do, and I have lots of positive memories from these times—but rather that I think the downsides outweighed what we gained. So when I read the following quote by homeschool pioneer Mary Pride, I just had to laugh. With this background, let me offer the quote and some thoughts I had on reading it.

However, in one respect these books do get it right. In school, kids learn to segregate themselves by age. Older kids learn to be embarrassed about spending time with younger kids. Schoolkids also quickly learn the art of the putdown, and all about “ganging up” on the victim of the day. When all these social fighting skills – which clueless folks refer to as “socialization” – are brought home, it can take sibling rivalry to a new level of meanness.

Does she seriously think sibling rivalry only turns mean when kids attend public school and thus learn bullying techniques and bringing those techniques home? Or, conversely, that public school kids naturally have troubled sibling-sibling relationships? Or, to ask a third question, that homeschooling can’t in certain ways serve to increase sibling rivalry? Because my experience and the experiences of friends I now have who were public schooled very much suggests otherwise.

Does she seriously think that homeschooled kids don’t learn how to put each other down or gang up on each other? Goodness, don’t get me started on the ganging up on each other bit—for a long time, my siblings and I were split into two groups and automatically took opposite sides when there was a fight. Sometimes one faction would gang up on one kid in the other faction, and the rest of that child’s action would rush to her rescue. Each faction viewed the other with some degree of suspicion.

Does she seriously think that homeschooled kids never get annoyed by kid siblings and, yes, even at times come to resent them? Let me tell you right now—they do! I wouldn’t say I ever felt actual resentment—though the same cannot be said of all of my siblings—but I did find some of the younger ones quite annoying at times. And sometimes we older ones—some more than others—wished we could get the little kids out of our hair so we could have some space, but when the little kids share a room with you, it’s rather hard to do that.

When it comes to sibling to sibling relationships, my parents would have done better here if they had sought to read about and learn techniques for fostering positive sibling relationships rather than simply assuming that the act of homeschooling would turn us all into singing cherubs. But then, they bought what Mary Pride was selling hook line and sinker.

I want to be clear that I’m not trying to generalize from my experience—while there may be some similar patterns, I think the dynamics of sibling relationships will vary greatly from homeschool family to homeschool family (just as they vary greatly from public school family to public school family). I’m simply saying that the promise my parents were given that homeschooling would create close and blissful sibling relationships—and also would mean that none of us would face bullying—turned out to be false and grossly misleading. And yet, homeschool speakers and organizations are still out there making this same promise to unsuspecting homeschool parents today. Perhaps, in some small way, my story can help.

If you were homeschooled, I’d like to invite you to use this space to talk about how sibling relationships went in your family. And if you weren’t homeschooled, feel free to talk about your own experiences with sibling relationships and how they compare and contrast with the things I talk about here. 

6 comments

  • My sibling relationships had some great sides and some bad ones… but the bad sides were pretty damn bad. There was one brother who bullied me and my sister all the time. He sexually abused my sister and psychologically tormented my other brother, and I protected myself only with demonstrations of rage and threats to bring in the parents and to have him locked up if he ever got near me, so I managed to stay safe. I myself bullied the other brother for a short period, too. I was very close with my younger sister though. The oldest of all of us, my old sister, sounds much like you. She was actually called “Another Mommy” by the youngest. She was allowed to punish us and long after we were over the punishing ages she continued to judge me very harshly, trying to get way too involved in my personal life, and shaming me when I did something she didn’t like. So yes, when you have nobody else around to give you social perspective— sibling relationships get sick and dark.

  • This is a good article. I think it is HARD to live with anyone:-0 I do think it is a bad thing to have only family time too. As a homeschool mom, I try to stress to each kid every one needs personal time and space and I actively make that happen.

    I grew up in public school. My siblings were 5 and 7 years older then me, so I did not fight with them. I was the loved baby:-0 Except as wunderkindweasal mentioned, my brother sexual abused me. So it happens in all kinds of families.

    My husband had a brother 1.5 years younger, mostly public schooled with a year of private school. They fought all the time and as adult they are close.

    I have read through name of the posts on this site and they are similar to my up bringing in an abuse ladden home. Could it just be that it is more because of abusive homes? IDK. I was too afraid to say anything to any one and I was in the public school every day.

    I am so sorry that you had a hard childhood! I am glad you are strong today!

    • Not to diminish your abuse in any way, but sometimes abuse in a homeschooling is unique. In a homeschool environment, if your parents abuse you, it’s like your teacher, Bible study leader, and parents all abusing you. Because your parents fill all those roles in your social life. I agree that abusive and dysfunctional households probably do share more similarities than differences, but I think the social isolation of homeschooling makes abuse all the worse. You literally have no time not surrounded and led/taught by your abuser.

  • Because my parents were bent on dominating and controlling their children by isolating them and limiting what influences they are exposed to through homeschooling, as well as spanking us into submission and terrifying us with ideas that our grandparents, relatives, people in general and us (if we didn’t subscribe to their beliefs) were going to hell, there was little to no intimacy in our family. There was no acceptance for any of us to be who we were and share our real thoughts, feelings, needs or wants. I am the second oldest of twelve children, and I am heartbroken now that I realize that I never got to develop healthy relationships with any of my precious and wonderful siblings because of the fear and mind-numbing control we were all subjected to. I now attend Codependents Anonymous and am learning what healthy and fulfilling relationships are and how to have them and it is all completely new to me, very healing but very saddening to realize what I have missed out on all my life. I know that my parents claim to love their children, and they do sometimes love us in ways that actually work and feel like love to us, but whether because of family dysfunction or I am finding out more and more that it could have been teaching they received from the homeschool movement, many of the ways they “loved” us were so toxic and damaged our ability to have healthy relationships with ourselves, God, family and society.

  • In my experience, children who are cloistered within homeschool have to reenact many of the roles they assume other children will be – the school bully, the stepparent, the baby, the teacher, etc. I think this really overwhelms what could be more dynamic and less tense sibling relationships, because there are no or very few outside children to interact with. I see this kind of playacting in many families I knew who homeschooled – siblings would gang up on brothers or sisters in vehement ways I never could imagine other families going through. It’s unfortunate to hear cases of sexual abuse and incest in that situation, among siblings schooled at home or public. Many parents come to homeschooling as an attempt to control the environment their children are exposed to, but, as this article touches on, they don’t realize a quiet and unsaturated space is not one without bullying, psychological damage, and violence.

  • Pingback: What About Socialization — For Parents? « HARO

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