It 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.
“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