Please Don’t Deny Our Agency
I wrote the first draft of this post last summer. I wasn’t satisfied with it as it was, so I set it aside and promptly forgot about it. A conversation with one of my sisters reminded me of the post, so I’ve pulled it out and dusted it up.
In writing, last summer, about Josh Duggar’s Ashley Madison account, I noted that:
Josh and Anna didn’t have sex until they married, so they had no way of knowing whether they are sexually compatible. Further, Josh doesn’t believe in birth control and he and his wife Anna have had four kids in five years. There is no way this hasn’t taken a tole on the couple’s sex life. Josh also does not believe in divorce. None of this justifies Josh’s cheating. He is a grown man, and in choosing the beliefs he has he has made his own bed.
Quite a few commenters objected, arguing that Josh didn’t chose his beliefs, his parents chose them for him. While I understand where this is coming from, I have a problem with where this logic leads—namely, that any individual who grows up in the Christian homeschooling movement and does not deviate from their parents’ beliefs as an adult is some sort of automaton, bereft of agency.
I grew up as the oldest of a dozen homeschooled children in a family similar to Josh’s in many ways. If I hadn’t left the fold, I would probably be pregnant with my fifth child right now and homeschooling my oldest, but instead I am part of the Homeschoolers Anonymous community, one of scores of other young adults now critical of our Christian homeschool upbringings. While I was not raised in ATI, as Josh was, dozens of individuals of my generation who were have formed Recovering Grace and found other outlets for opposing Bill Gothard’s cultish teachings.
What I am trying to say is simply this: Being raised in a Christian homeschooling home does not rob a person of agency. If it did, I would not be where I am today.
It’s true Christian homeschooling is often centered around ensuring that children will adopt their parents’ beliefs, but you know what? We all turn 18 at some point, and at some point we leave home. When we become adults, we make our own choices. Some of us chose to reject our parents’ beliefs entirely. Others pick through, keeping some things and setting aside others. Still others choose to make our parents’ beliefs our own. We exercise our agency in different ways, but we do have agency.
I am familiar with the concept of “bounded choices.” I understand that some of us have more room to question than others, that some of us have more exposure to other people and beliefs than others, and that some of us have more resources and marketable skills than others.
There are indeed young women in these communities who go straight from their parent’s home to their husband’s home, with no college or job skills, and immediately commence bearing and raising children. But you know what? Telling these women that they only believe what they do because their parents taught it to them, denying their agency and their ability to make their own choices—these things will only contribute to the sort of infantilization many of us experienced as adolescents. It doesn’t help.
That conversation I had with my sister? She wanted to make sure that I respected her agency. She was concerned that I knew that she held the same beliefs as our parents because she believed them for herself and not because it was what she had been taught. She was worried that, because I had a rather dramatic experience of resorting and choosing my beliefs as a young adult, I might assume that she was not exercising her own agency. She wanted to make sure I saw her as an autonomous person making her own choices.
When we speak of young Christian homeschool graduates being “brainwashed” we push people like my sister away. When we affirm their agency and autonomy (while also challenging their beliefs when necessary) we help promote both. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t consider the challenges faced by homeschool alumni from controlling or dogmatic homes, and we should absolutely promote greater freedom and openness by speaking out against harmful practices and supporting scholarships and other initiatives to help those who may find themselves stuck. But denying the agency of those who espouse their parent’s beliefs helps none of this. We can affirm agency while also promoting expanded options.
But let’s return to Josh Duggar. Some of you may argue that Josh was, in some sense, trapped. He had a wife and four children and no marketable job skills that he could apply outside of his parents’ circles of influence.
Let me tell you a story about a Christian homeschool graduate who, like Josh, courted, married, and set up house with a young woman who had just graduated from homeschooling herself. Together they had four children in five years. This homeschool graduate was trained for the ministry, and only for ministry, and was expected to follow in paternal footsteps. In the early years of marriage the fledgling family was financially dependent on family. Small children in tow, the young family moved several states away for a new job pastoring a church.
Are you noticing some parallels? You should be. Josh also married young through a parent-controlled courtship, had four children in five years, was financially dependent on his father, and moved several states away to take up a much-lauded job doing what he was expected to do to further the family name.
But this story ends differently. This homeschool graduate struggled with dysphoria, entered a period of intense questioning, and then left the approved path. Though assigned male at birth, this homeschool graduate came out as transgender and transitioned to living openly as a woman. She left the ministry and had to find an entirely new career, starting from scratch with four children to care for. Neither she nor her wife had any job skills to fall back on. And yet, they overcame overcame. You can read Haley’s story, as told by her wife Melissa, here.
Hayley chose to question her parents’ beliefs and leave their subculture. Josh chose to adopt his parents believes and stay in their subculture. Both had agency.
Yes, children who grow up in Christian homeschooling families are often more sheltered than other children. We may study out of textbooks that are extremely limited in ideological scope. We may not have any friends whose beliefs differ from ours. But the entire premise of this blog and so many others is that Christian homeschooling does not work. Children are wildcards, not robots waiting for programming. Regardless of how controlling our parents may be during our childhoods, once we turn 18 we make our own decisions. Please do not deny us that.