What I should have said 13 years ago

YardsticksIt 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 awful, angry, painful 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 Worldly, Defeating the Dragons, Elizabeth 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.

My follow up on my own disciplinary journey is here:  I don’t hit and I try not to yell

About Sharon Autenrieth

Wife, mom to 5, homeschooler, Christian Education Director, idealist, malcontent, follower of Jesus.
This entry was posted in Bible, Christianity, education, family, homeschooling, parenting and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

51 Responses to What I should have said 13 years ago

  1. Elsie Gordon says:

    Well written, Sharon. As a licensed psychologist, I am a mandated reporter for child abuse. It is not our job to investigate abuse. However, if there is a “suspicion” of abuse we are to call Child Protective Services. You can always call for a consultation and describe the situation.

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  2. Holly Parker says:

    I had to become a mandated reporter when I volunteered in a public school, but I’ve always been just the type to report people and speak up. I figure if they are comfortable to admit to hitting their kid or will even hit their kid in public, what’s going on in private is probably much worse. I can’t stand the idea of a child being hurt.

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  3. Drew Waldram says:

    Proverbs 13:24
    Proverbs 23:13
    I think the important thing when we’re searching for a Biblical guidance is to use the Bible. A country where it is illegal to spank your children is a country where it’s illegal to follow a Biblical model of parenting, and the courts tend to agree.

    http://www.wnd.com/2008/06/65997/

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    • There’s more than one way to parent as a Christian, and Prov 13:24 and 23:13 hardly stand alone as a parenting plan. In fact, taken by itself I find Prov. 23:13 especially inadequate. A child beaten with a rod may, in fact, die. I didn’t say that all spanking rises to the level of abuse, but I will say that I don’t think ANY amount of spanking will deal with heart issues (which is a claim that many “experts” make for spanking). I was spanked as a child, I’ve spanked as a parent (although I don’t do so any longer), and I know lots of good parents who spank now and then.

      But Drew – if you can’t distinguish between a swat on the bottom and beating a teenager with a yardstick until it breaks – or beating a child with plumbing line for 7 hours (minus prayer breaks), which is what killed 7 year old Lydia Schatz – then you are part of the problem. And until you can distinguish between the two, please don’t spank your (future) children.

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      • Drew Waldram says:

        Sharon, I think I understand the difference between a plumbing line and a yardstick, they’re hardly fit to be compared.

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      • Only 1/4 in., mind you. The recommended tool from the book “To Train Up a Child”. Light, flexible, portable.

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      • Drew Waldram says:

        Well, it’s not very portable, Off to jail with him!

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      • Oh, I see. You don’t actually want to have a conversation. You just want to play troll now. Okay.

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      • Drew Waldram says:

        No, I was pointing out that a yardstick fit most of those conditions, and the one it didn’t fit seems to be more a matter of convenience. With the exception of a few older yardsticks most of the ones I’ve encountered could be broken rather easily or could be used to inflict serious harm depending on the angle you hit someone with it or how far you choked up on it. Maybe your judgment of this guy depends more on your impression of the situation for lack actually witnessing the scenario.

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    • The_L says:

      Nobody’s talking about banning spanking. We’re talking about banning the striking of one’s own child with an object.

      If you use a “switch” on your child, you are not spanking, you are beating.
      If you use a paddle, you are not spanking, you are beating.
      If you use a cord or flexible tubing, you are not spanking, you are beating.
      If you use a piece of piping, you are not spanking, you are beating.
      If you strike a child with anything but an open hand, anywhere other than the buttocks, you are not spanking, you are beating.

      Spanking is done with an open hand on the buttocks. As far as I’m concerned, “the rod” is simply a term for discipline itself, NOT an injunction to beat your child with a stick.

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      • Monimonika says:

        Looks like someone disagrees with you.

        “MICHAEL PEARL: Absolutely. A hand is hitting. A little switch is spanking. A wooden spoon or spatula — rubber spatula is spanking.”

        http://transcripts.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/1208/03/acd.01.html

        I think it was the Pearls who also said that the reason to use tools rather than your own hand to spank is so that the child will associate discipline with the tool (not the hand or parent) and leave the hand to be associated with love. :-(

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      • Yes, well, I suspect the Pearls and I disagree on almost everything. Their teachings on marriage are as appalling as their advice on parenting.

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  4. Lana says:

    Wow, thanks for speaking up. You rock! I agree with you here all the way. The problem isn’t just that there are fundamental homeschoolers who take these conservative ideas to the extreme; the problem is so man yof the rest of the Christian homeschoolers aren’t taking a stand against it.

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  5. R.L. Stollar says:

    Hey Sharon. This is Ryan Stollar from Homeschoolers Anonymous. I really, really appreciated this piece. Thank you for speaking up! When you have a moment, could you email me? homeschoolersanonymous at gmail dot com.

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  6. mandarox says:

    Brilliantly written. I wasn’t home-schooled myself, but I have a friend who was and I have to say, my assumption of homeschooling, was completely different to what she had experienced. I, like you did 13 years ago, often find it difficult to let my opinions be heard among people who are older (and as I assume wiser) than I am. It’s not so much a fear of being judged (because I let all my opinions be heard among my friends and family) it’s more a feeling that I shouldn’t put my opinions or beliefs onto someone else because of the way they might take it.

    If I was you 13 years ago, I would like to think that I’d stand up to him, but in reality I probably wouldn’t have either. Especially when someone says something so sudden as that. I find it takes a lot of time to just think about what I’m going to say, before I actually say it, which means that a quick encounter with a stranger just isn’t enough time to speak my mind.

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    • Well, there’s that, too. :) It’s easy to think of what I should have said AFTER the fact. On the spot, it’s an entirely different matter. But sputtering something still would have been better than silently hating what he was saying.

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  8. jubilare says:

    Whew… when I talk to people who ask me questions about homeschooling, one of the first things I say is that it’s a huge spectrum, not a homogenous group. I’ve seen examples of the kinds of patterns and problems you mention to various degrees (though, mercifully, none involving severe physical abuse, at least that I am aware of…) and also as many exceptions to these patterns, both good and bad. Homeschooling has as great potential to go wrong as it does to go right.

    While what you describe above does sound like abuse, I’m not against spanking. Growing up, it was probably the most effective and least frustrating punishment I received. I was never injured, my parents were careful never to spank in anger, and they always talked to me to make sure I knew why. Sitting still was next to impossible for me, so “time out” was psychological torture. Grounding me just made me bitter and frustrated. Spanking was painful, but brief and, in the end, cathartic. I know it isn’t so for everyone. I’ve also witnessed the horror of spanking being misused, and I can’t stand the idea of it being used on foster children, or someone whose relationship with parents or parent-figures is already damaged. Because of that, I would never promote the use of spanking in raising children. I guess my point in this ramble is to sound your thoughts on the matter, and express my own. It bugs me when spanking is considered synonymous with abuse because I think that is an over-simplification. Sometimes brief physical pain is a wake-up call that re-directs rather than a spirit-crushing, abusive form of control. It’s a dangerous tool, one with sharp edges that has to be handled with care, but still just a tool.

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    • I’m writing a follow post in which I directly explain why I don’t spank anymore. I’m with you – I don’t consider all spanking abuse. I think it has to be used with care, and not all parents seem capable of using it correctly (ahem – that’s foreshadowing of my post). I’m glad that you can look back at your own experience and speak well of how you were parented.

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      • jubilare says:

        Thanks for the foreshadowing. :)

        I’ve had some interesting discussions with my parents about the differences between their perceptions of how they brought my brother and I up, and mine. It has to be tricky interacting with a person who has yet to learn that adults aren’t psychic and that they don’t know everything. On the whole, though, I think they did a good job.

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  9. Sgaile-beairt says:

    just curious….wld you still call it ‘discipline” if a prison guard beat a prisoner to death, with a rubber hose, in a concentration camp??

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    • Are asking ME? No, I’d call that torture leading to homicide – just like I’d call it in the case of Lydia Schatz. The only difference is in the justification offered by the one doing the torturing and murder. And no justification is adequate.

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  10. Pingback: I don’t hit and I try not to yell | Strange Figures

  11. People that use the Bible to justify hitting their kids seriously piss me off. Period. I don’t care how you do it or what tools you use or if you just use your open hand. HITTING A KID IS WRONG. PERIOD. Any kind of physical punishment is NOT discipline, it IS abuse. If an adult hits another adult, we call it assault, but doing the same to a child is different somehow? No. It’s not. It’s still assault. It serves only to hurt and humiliate. When you hit a child, you teach them how to hit, not how to love. No exceptions.

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    • jubilare says:

      I don’t agree. I’m not a parent, and I don’t spank anyone’s kids, but I was spanked. I was NEVER abused. Never hurt. It made me stop and think, like snapping me out of a mindset, and was far less abusive, for my case, than making me sit in a corner or grounding me (time out is psychological torture to a truly A.D.D. child). Just talking to me didn’t do much good, either, until I got older.

      That said, people using the Bible to justify hitting their kids pisses me off too. I just think you should be careful about making blanket statements from a limited perspective (and everyone’s perspective is limited somehow).

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      • I think that my perspective, however limited it may or may not be, is fine. If it’s wrong to hit an adult, it’s also wrong to hit a child. Period. I won’t apologize for speaking up on this one.

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      • You don’t need to apologize, Holly. Your view is your view, but you also can’t tell someone that they were abused if that’s not their honest assessment of their experience. I genuinely don’t think my parents abused me; they often did a better job with me than I did with my kids, for whatever reason. If I could change anything in my upbringing it would be the emotional repression (Don’t look at me like that, don’t use that tone of voice with me, because I said so) that was very common and that could exist without any spanking at all. That drove me CRAZY as a kid, and I’ve tried to avoid that – even in my spanking years.

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      • jubilare says:

        I’m not objecting to your speaking up, you are entitled to your opinion (as I am to mine) and I never asked for an apology. However, if I am neither a liar nor alone in my experience, then maybe there are factors you aren’t taking into account. Maybe you don’t care, I can’t say. All I know is that I have personal experience in spanking not being abusive, damaging, or violence-encouraging.

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  12. Pingback: What I Should Have Said 13 Years Ago: Sharon Autenrieth’s Thoughts | H • A

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  14. Abigail says:

    I love this article. PLEASE, correct the typo in your last sentence from “I try to yell” to “I try not to yell”.

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  15. April says:

    From another homeschooled child who was spanked in my young years (about age 2 to 10 or so), spanking was an excellent form of punishment for me, but *only* because it was done correctly. My mom always sent me to my room first if she was angry with me. She always made herself calm down before she came up to talk to me, spanked me just enough for it to sting, and then hugged me. She *always* hugged me after a spanking. She *always* told me she loved me. And I *always* believed her, even though I had just experienced the slight pain of a spanking. It was *because* of the slight pain of that spanking that I knew she loved me. And now, as an adult and looking back on those years, I am so very thankful to both of my parents for spanking me appropriately during appropriate times.

    Having said all of that, if I find I struggle with my temper with my own kids and am tempted to spank out of anger, I will not be spanking my own kids. I will find other forms of punishment, or I will beg God for the presence of mind and self control to do what my mom did–send my children to their rooms until I calm down, pray, and refocus. Spanking is a more serious form of discipline that should not be taken lightly. It is so easily abused, but also very effective with certain children at certain times, when done correctly.

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  16. Motherofthree says:

    When my very young child in my arms (under a year) began intentionally hitting me in the face, and yanking my hair hard, I tried the gentle approach of saying, “no-no, don’t hit mommy, that hurts” and sitting him down, or just holding his hands so he would stop striking me (which produced extreme wriggling, snapping his head & body back, and piercing screams). These painful, ugly events merely escalated. He could hit hard! And these strikes were unpredictable too. It was against my belief to “spank” so young a child, and I also feared it would give him the wrong message. Finally, I decided I had to change tactics. The next time he struck me, I gave him a stinging “spank” on the thigh. Big eyes of shock and awe followed. I calmly explained the new world order. The next time he hurt me, I told him no, and warned him he would get a spank if he did it again. It probably took about 3 more of these thigh spanks to cure him. What a folly that I had endured months of allowing my child to do the wrong thing and create so much unpleasantness when it was so easy to train him to behave differently. This was no “beating,” but rather loving, controlled discipline which produced the desired behavior. I believe that this is why the Bible recommends the rod as a form of correction.

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    • Thanks for the comment! As you’ll see in my posts, I don’t describe every spank as abusive. I choose not to spank any longer (my 8 year old has lived a spanking-free life), and I haven’t seen any negative effects. But I would also encourage you to hear the point of my this particular post, which is about addressing abuse – REAL abuse – when we encounter it.

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    • Monimonika says:

      According to my father, I too went through a phase of just randomly slapping my mother when I was a toddler. My mother tried to non-painfully get me to stop, but it didn’t work. That’s when my father spied me making my way towards him with obvious intentions. He allowed me to come within range and deliver my first slap upon him. WHAM. He broadsided me with an open-handed swing of his arm and sent me flying. I cried and wailed, but eventually got over the pain and shock (mostly shock) and toddled back to my mother where I proceeded to give another slap (lesson? what lesson?). The lesson I did learn though was not to try slapping my father ever again.

      I don’t remember this phase at all, of course, and I have no urges whatsoever to hit either of my parents. Other than that one time, my father has never spanked or hit me in any form. The worst I can recall is having his finger sternly tap my forehead while he detailed how I have hurt others with my thoughtless actions or words. One thing I love about him is that I can admit to him my mistakes and he will either get me to do the right thing, smooth the situation down, or help me cover it up ;-) He usually doesn’t yell at me so long as I don’t hide from him whatever I screwed up. My trusting him is very important to him.

      My mother tends to nag about issues for long periods of time (“why don’t you date?”), so I don’t usually go to her with my screw ups. The single time she ever tried to hit me was when I revealed to her that I knew about torrenting foreign movies and tv shows 2 years before she found out from a friend, and that I had already viewed the Death Note movie she really wanted to see. She was sooo pissed off at me.

      Sorry for the rambling.

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      • Fixing this comment so I’m replying in the right place….no need to apologize for rambling! I appreciate you reading my post and I’m glad your father never felt the need to spank you again. :)

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  18. Melissa says:

    I just found this article, after I too stumbled down the rabbit hole of reading homeschooler abuse survivors. We are a new parent to homeschooling and I too feel like something needs to be done and there is pressure to get it all right and we aren’t doing enough. I don’t know yet what I can do – I know I can do better with my own children, but I don’t know yet what I can do to help other people’s children, but I’m brainstorming. Personally, for us, my husband and I disagree on spanking and when it should be used, but it’s a work in progress. I am trying to be gentle with my child. And he is responding to me and to my gentleness, even now in the toddler stages where he is getting to be very aggressive, I am managing to make a difference. He is hitting less and we are playing more. Am I perfect? No. Is he perfect? No. But I’m just trying to love him, not be perfect and I don’t ever expect him to be perfect as a sinful human being. I want to work on his heart first and foremost, so that he learns to do right because he wants to do right and not because he is afraid of the consequences. There will come a day where I can no longer hold his hand and walk with him and I can’t stand over his shoulder and make him do the right thing, so I need to instill in him a desire to do the right thing on his own. That’s my goal anyways. Sorry to ramble on so long. Your post just touched me because it resonated with so much of how I feel after stumbling down the same rabbit hole you did reading stories of abuse being hidden in homeschools.

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    • I’m so glad you wrote, Melissa! You sound like a great mom already & I hope that you and your husband are able to iron out any real disagreements you have around discipline. Few couples agree completely, but we seem to manage anyway. :)

      As for what we can do, I hope you’ll just be open and honest with other homeschool parents about your concerns. And don’t feel the need to look perfect! If we remove some of that pressure from each other (to have the perfect families) I think we’ll be able to get a healthier perspective on discipline as well.

      I pray for grace and wisdom for your parenting journey!

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      • Melissa says:

        Thank you! I very much appreciate that. I wasn’t raised in an abusive household by any means, but I was a bright child so my parents had high expectations for me, which kind of melded sometimes into perfectionism. I know they meant well, but I struggle with feeling like I need to be perfect. I am trying to let go of that and my relationship with my parents is mush better now, which is also helping. I think with my son being born that my dad has mellowed out a lot and I’m glad for that. He is becoming my biggest cheerleader and I know he supports me and that means the world to me :)

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