About Those “Model Homeschoolers”…

HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Heather Doney’s blog Becoming Worldly. It was originally published on November 7, 2013.

Recently a piece on Hana Williams’ death and her parents’ conviction, “The Tragic Death of An Ethiopian Adoptee and How It Could Happen Again” by Quiverfull and Child Catchers author Kathryn Joyce, came out in Slate magazine. My Homeschooling’s Invisible Children teammate and co-founder, Rachel Coleman, was quoted in it and HIC was linked.

Hana Williams’ tragic story is powerful and grotesque. It shows how at-risk children, including orphans adopted from other countries, can easily be severely mistreated or even die when living in homeschooling homes where the focus is on authoritarian “sin-punishing” parenting and having many children raised as “arrows” for Christ.

What I expect many readers of the Slate piece are struck by is how extreme the circumstances were for the Williams’ children. What they may not understand is that while that sort of awful story definitely exists on the far end of a spectrum of fundamentalist homeschooling, there are more common and often milder strains of it that are pervasive in certain homeschooling subcultures. These strains have made their way into others in a way that is often invisible unless you know what to look for.

The reason most parents do the authoritarian parenting thing in the first place is because they believe it will result in model children and successful adults.

They see children from these other homeschooling families that seem “perfectly well-behaved” and who do “first time obedience” and many understandably want that sort of awesomeness for themselves. What they do not understand is that this “model homeschooler” or “model child” image often comes at a steep price.

Like the infamous (and largely discredited) Chinese “tiger mother” style of parenting, you can sometimes have outwardly successful offspring that nonetheless have increasingly serious secret or not-so-secret mental health and emotional struggles because they have been trained to view the world as exacting, punitive, and unsafe. People who feel that the world around them is constantly requiring perfection out of them often respond by engaging in something that one of my friends called “self-cannibalization” in order to succeed. While you don’t hear much about the ones who don’t succeed, others noticeably surpass their peers in educational attainment and professional achievement.

This is my story as well, really. I grew up isolated and poor and then went on to be an honors student in college, make lots of friends and throw good parties once I learned how to socialize. I was a good neighbor, presented well in public, and was not a half bad partner to love or marry.

Nobody would have guessed at what battles went on in my head or how much intense effort went into “passing for normal” until it all came crashing down.

The walls separating the different spheres of my inner world crumbled during grad school into what for me was delayed-onset PTSD and for others might more closely resemble depression, anxiety, substance abuse, compulsive behavior, self-harm, and/or social phobias.

Some people don’t seem to connect these kinds of dots. Many people trying to defend the reputation of homeschooling (which I will note is different than defending the right to homeschool) note that the writing, educational attainment, and professions of many of us former homeschoolers speaking out about negative homeschooling experiences are respectably good.

These kinds of achievements are the stuff that homeschool leaders and proud parents would love to take some credit for, attribute to homeschooling. But for those of us who have lived through the kinds of experiences we describe, when someone assumes that the reason we have the skills and careers that we do today is because of homeschooling, we get annoyed (and sometimes triggered).

We know that they do not fully understand what happened to us and that they are definitely not hearing from or seeing all of us.

For people who see ourselves as survivors of what I’m going to start calling the Authoritarian Christian Homeschooling Movement (to differentiate it from the views of both ordinary Christians and fundamentalist Christians), it is upsetting to hear the sort of homeschooling we were subjected to and our subsequent skills and accomplishments connected in a positive causal relationship without our permission. It negates some of our feelings and experiences, doesn’t paint an accurate picture, and can also be (wrongheadedly) used as an argument for the status quo not changing (and yes, it definitely needs changing).

See, we know from experience that “well, you’re obviously doing great stuff today” can be and often is used as the basis of a “no harm, no foul” argument. This argument implies that homeschooling in fact worked as intended and the problem simply was that the formula needed a bit more of an ingredient or two, perhaps one of them being love. While I am not one to ever speak against love (as it is a many splendored thing and I think I did need more), I think what we really needed most was less authoritarianism and social isolation so that we could have the choice, rather than the commandment, as to who to give our love to and how.

So while I get that expressing appreciation or admiration or an enjoyment of the things some of us have produced is likely not meant as anything but a sincere compliment (and I and others working on shedding light on this issue do hope you like reading our stories) it is not ok to then attribute our abilities, skills, or professions to quality homeschooling.

However, I realize that me simply stating that it’s not alright to call people exemplary or model homeschoolers when they don’t want the label does not convey the full message as to why. So I decided to ask some of my fellow survivors to fill out the following prompt and share their own answers with you, so you can know why:

#1 – The Prodigal Son’s Brother (pseudonym), male, age 29
As a former homeschooler, I am noticeably capable and mature because: 
Much of my social interaction during certain formative years was with adults, rather than peers, and my reading material was far ahead of that for my age 
What I wish people really knew about me was:

I am self-loathing, codependent, sex-negative, vengeful, immature, and suicidal.

#2 – Trinity Ruth Ruhland, female, age 23
As a former homeschooler, I am noticeably capable and mature because: 
I relate better to my supervisors and older adults. I have a kick-ass work ethic because I had no choice but to work to survive.
What I wish people really knew about me was:
I still struggle to have friends my own age, and that I feel a lot of pressure to always be perfect. Also, I am in the Air Force and I’d like people (coworkers who tease me relentlessly) to know that I have an honest fear of things flying through the air and hitting me. It is not that I don’t like playing Wally ball for PT, but that I seriously can’t handle things flying at me anymore. I also wish they’d understand that I have issues with nightmares (a combo of growing up and my time in Afghanistan) and that I can’t watch certain movies because of triggers.

#3 – anonymous female, age 28
As a former homeschooler, I am noticeably capable and mature because: 
I work hard, I’m efficient, and I do a good job.
What I wish people really knew about me was:
I frequently short-change myself to deliver this level of work. I wish they knew that I struggle with panic attacks at the very thought of making a mistake and that this makes it hard to function. I wish they knew that I suffer from chronic health problems stemming from overwork and stress during my teens. I wish they knew that I have a hard time relaxing and enjoying myself.

#4 – Holly (pseudonym), female, age 34
As a former homeschooler, I am noticeably capable and mature because: 
I work hard and push myself beyond reasonable limits.
What I wish people really knew about me was:
I have daily anxiety, frequent panic attacks, depression, nightmares and night terrors, and sometimes am unable to leave my house for days, all because of my childhood experiences in a controlling religious subculture.

#5 – April Duvall, female, age 33, homeschooled 2nd – 12th grade
As a former homeschooler, I am noticeably capable and mature because: 
I produce high-quality work. I had to get things right the first time all the time to avoid beatings and learn how to hold a job so I could escape as a teenager.
What I wish people really knew about me was:
I panic when thinking I have gotten any small detail wrong. I wake up with nightmares after any small correction. I spend hours talking myself down telling myself it’s okay, I won’t be beaten or rejected, I won’t die and won’t bring harm to those under me for not achieving a nebulous perfection. I struggle to navigate group situations, and I see that my oldest child also struggles as I haven’t been able to teach her what I don’t know – how to enter a small group of children playing. My social skills are only good in professional or maybe 1:1 situations.

#5 – Deborah (pseudonym), female, age 23
As a former homeschooler, I am noticeably capable and mature because: 
I was isolated from every single person except my family and every moment of my life was not only accounted for by watchful adults but used to teach me something – generally not actual education, but “character” or skills I needed in order to be a housewife.
What I wish people really knew about me was:
I didn’t have friends or a childhood and that has left me crushed and unable to interact socially with others in an appropriate manner or date until well into my adult life.

#6 – anonymous female, age 26, law student
As a former homeschooler, I am noticeably capable and mature because: 
I have suffered so much pain, I don’t see the point in laughing or having fun anymore. I don’t go to parties. I don’t hang out with friends. I don’t even take vacations.
What I wish people really knew about me was:
I am in counseling for anxiety, I am terrified of people, I have huge trust issues that prevent me from forming close relationships, and I am triggered by anything that reminds me of family. I work hard and accomplish things because burying myself in activity is how I hide from the pain. Don’t look at me and say ‘She’s fine.’ Look at me and wonder how on earth I still manage to function.

#7 – Stacy (pseudonym), age 25, graduate student in history and English
As a former homeschooler, I am noticeably capable and mature because: 
Growing up, if I wasn’t capable and mature at all times, at every age, at every event and in all subjects, it meant that I was not only failing as a Christian, cultural warrior who was the only hope for America, but I was misrepresenting and disrespecting God as my creator.
What I wish people really knew about me was:
I appear so together and capable today because that binary (fail-succeed) is still dominant in my mind– joy, peace and happiness (feelings that emerge from those grey areas in the process outside failing and succeeding) are fought-for blessings.

#8 – anonymous female, age 30, married, with a master’s degree and established career
As a former homeschooler, I am noticeably capable and mature because: 
I was required to do everything perfectly every time, both in “school” and out of it, and there was no break from those expectations.
What I wish people really knew about me was:
Now I am on an SSRI just so I can sleep at night because of my anxiety problems and my doctor’s belief that I am on the OCD spectrum.

#9 – DoaHF (Daughter of a Heavenly Father, pseudonym), female, age 23
As a former homeschooler, I am noticeably capable and mature because: 
I had a perfectionist mother who was always on my back about doing things her perfect way.
What I wish people really knew about me was:
I hate the voices in my head that won’t go away. I have authority issues and I dont trust ANYONE, even if I have known them for years. My heart is locked away so it can’t get hurt… for the thousandth time.

#10 – Susannah (pseudonym), female, 38
As a former homeschooler, I am noticeably capable and mature because: 
I have decades of practice raising children and managing a home; I am articulate, read constantly, and live in a nice neighborhood.
What I wish people really knew about me was:
What is less apparent is that I get panic attacks from grocery shopping, that I get tongue-tied conversing with confident men, and seeing my mom’s handwriting causes me psychosomatic pain.

#11 – Hadassah (pseudonym), female, age 31
As a former homeschooler, I am noticeably capable and mature because: 
I seem to have it together, am great at organization, pretty awesome in the kitchen, and I am often praised for my kids and understanding them. I’m praised for my language skills, but I refused to learn it from my parents. I have learned everything hands on.
What I wish people really knew about me was:
I have some pretty intense anxiety. I have trouble working with others, because I find them in my way or that they’re honestly not working. I end up being assigned projects on my own and do above and beyond the call of duty for fear that I will be kicked off of the program or fired, because it has happened before in a no-fault state.

The only reason my kids and I have “an understanding” is because I’ve gone out of my way for the last 6 years to read a large amount of childhood development books that I bought on my dime.

I seem like I know all the chemistry in the kitchen when I’m barely able to handle the mathematics and never once took chemistry classes. I freak out if my cooking/baking is less than perfect.

People also do not know that I am chronically ill, and often cannot function like they do; or I have panic attacks and need to stop and try again. People do not know that I was held back simply because I am female. That I was forced to be a stay at home daughter and basically was a servant to my parents until I was finally able to marry my husband and get out of my parent’s home. People have no idea that hiding behind the “cool” veneer of homeschooling, my education is so lacking that I’m still filling in the blanks as money avails itself.

#12 – Julia (pseudonym), female, age 24
As a former homeschooler, I am noticeably capable and mature because: 
Failure was never an option, appearances were all that mattered, and I am skilled at communicating with my elders as opposed to my peers.
What I wish people really knew about me was:
I am just going through the motions. I deal with anxiety, depression, diagnosed PTSD, and feel as though I must always second-guess what others do and say. I can’t trust them, and I can’t relate to them, and I often wish Socialization 101 courses existed.

#13 – Libby Anne, mid 20′s, blogger
As a former homeschooler, I am noticeably capable and mature because: 
I am hard working, polite, and well spoken.
What I wish people really knew about me was:
What I wish people really knew about me was that because of my perfectionism and past family trauma I get panic attacks when my boss says “I need to talk to you about something” and my heart rate goes sky high when I see a letter from my mother or my dad’s name on my voicemail.”

#14 – Kelly (pseudonym), female, age 30, law student
As a former homeschooler, I am noticeably capable and mature because: 
As a child I could not rely on my parents to be mature or conscientious–I had to parent myself in many ways, and was held to adult standards even as a child. They did not support my decisions or acknowledge my feelings unless they mirrored theirs (i.e., they were “correct”), so my decision making and interpersonal skills were stunted.
What I wish people really knew about me was:
This resulted in me constantly second-guessing my feelings, decisions, and interactions with others. I have been addressing these issues through reading self-help books and several years of professional therapy, but have a long way to go. My therapist was shocked that I am as functional as I am, given my past. Several of my siblings have not fared as well.

#15 – Samantha Field, female, 26, blogger
As a former homeschooler, I am noticeably capable and mature because: 
I was forced to take over the daily running of a household when I was 10 years old, and I didn’t have any real friends– just people who watched everything I did, everything I said, like a hawk and shamed me in public, in front of my entire church, for ever doing something that wasn’t “ladylike” and “mature.”
What I wish people really knew about me was:
I desperately loved science, but because no one was capable of teaching me math I got a degree in music– a degree I don’t even use now.

#16 – anonymous female, age 24, graduate student
As a former homeschooler, I am noticeably capable and mature because: 
I am the perfectionist daughter of perfectionist parents. I never knew that the pressure I was under to always get A’s was not something everyone experienced until I was in college. The pressure to be perfect, to never mess up, and to handle everything with poise and excellence has been one of the defining struggles in my life.
What I wish people really knew about me was:
How inadequate I feel most of the time. I wish they knew about my struggle with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and the depression that made the last ten years of my life so hard. I wish they knew that I struggle with anxiety and social awkwardness, that it’s hard for me to get close to people, and that no matter how hard I try, I never feel like I measure up. I wish they knew that the hurt I’ve suffered from legalistic conservative Christians has made it hard to hold onto my faith.

#17 – Noelle, female, age 22
As a former homeschooler, I am noticeably capable and mature because: 
I was forced to grow up at a young age and hold more responsibilities than a lot of adults do, as the oldest of 8 kids.
What I wish people really knew about me was:
I wish people knew that I have no self confidence in myself, I struggle with depression and self injury and my biggest dream right now (which seems impossible) is to radiate peace and positivity.

#18 – me, 30, blogger and homeschool reform advocate
As a former homeschooler, I am noticeably capable and mature because:
I am friendly, educated, conscientious, good at retaining and aggregating information, and I have a knack for bringing up issues, finding common ground, and mediating disputes in stressful or high-conflict situations.
What I wish people really knew about me was:
A violent authoritarian upbringing skewed my baseline settings and left me to struggle with self-care, perfectionism, avoidance of others when I’m struggling, sweaty palms if I hear church sermons, and a strong feeling that harsh or needy attention is love.

9 comments

  • The thing with the “model” homeschooler is that it is a charade. It’s fake. I have 9 siblings, and we are all pretty screwed up. But, boy do we look perfect. We just learned to hide all the mistakes well.

    Commending kids who are never out of their parents sight for how amazingly well behaved they are is like writing letters to the prison to tell murderers with a life sentence that you hope your child grows up just like them, because they haven’t committed a crime in decades. Of course not. Not because they are amazing examples of the good work of the prison system, but because they weren’t given the chance to mess up again.

  • Very good analysis in the first part; I get tired of hearing the argument that someone turned out all right, so the method is good. We spent our whole lives being told how critical what was inside us was, but when it comes time to evaluate ourselves, what is inside suddenly doesn’t matter.

  • Great piece! Another problem with the “you turned out OK” argument is that only those who understand their upbringing, and how it influenced them, could actually speak out against home schooling.

    As such, those who speak out would be among the best thinkers in the home schooler bunch, while those less insightful or less verbally gifted are not speaking out.

  • You know, reading all these makes me think that we should start a scholarship of sorts for the spiritually abused. Those women who were forced to become SAHMS or SAHDaughters, particularly. Perhaps it would hep them get a college experience and education..? Ahh, wishful thinking. But looking at vision forum victims lately, it WOULD be a help all these poor homeschooled children, particularly girls, again.

  • “What I wish people really knew about me was that because of my perfectionism and past family trauma I get panic attacks when my boss says “I need to talk to you about something” and my heart rate goes sky high when I see a letter from my mother or my dad’s name on my voicemail.””

    Oh my word, THIS IS ME. Not so much the second part, but definitely the boss part. The words “I need to talk to you about something” ALWAYS meant something bad when I was growing up.

  • Pingback: Christian Fundamentalism and the Tragic murder of Ethiopian Adoptee Hana Williams in United States. | Rainbow-Ethiopia Advocacy & Media Initiative

  • Many of us went to public school and could relate to any one of those insecurities. In fact the public school experience drove some of us to homeschool our children. Likewise there are many counter-examples of well-adjusted homeschoolers. Homeschooling is not a panacea but neither is not homeschooling. If there was a fool-proof roadmap for life we’d all be doing it. Peace.

    • Wonderful! I’m so glad that there are lots of well-adjusted homeschoolers. I guess now that everyone knows that there are different kinds of homeschooled families, those of us with bad experiences can just go on our merry ways.

  • Autistics who have been “tough loved” into acting outwardly like normal people have faced similar problems. The following link is an essay written by autistic blogger Unstrange Mind in response to being told repeatedly by mothers of nonverbal autistic children that they hope their kid grows up to be like her, not knowing the issues she faced. And yes, some of them are eerily similar to those of people who were homeschooled in abusive settings.

    https://unstrangemind.wordpress.com/2013/01/27/no-you-dont/

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