This article is part of a three-part series. Please read:
Part I: “Are Homeschoolers Raising Judgmental Twerps?”
Part II: “It’s a Scary World Out There.”
Part III: “If You Give a Homeschooler a Fish:” Turning Sheltered Children into Discerning Adults
“As no man is born an artist, so no man is born an angler.” Izaak Walton in The Compleat Angler, or the Contemplative Man's Recreation (1653)
Education, in the fullest sense of the word, is all-encompassing. It includes learning how to interpret life. As homeschool parents educate their families, they have tremendous influence over the way that their children will relate to the rest of humanity. Often homeschool parents have chosen to bypass the public school system because they wish to transmit a very specific understanding of God, the world, and the human role on earth. In this series we have discussed the challenge of teaching our children to apply truth without becoming self-righteous twerps who think that they are better than everyone else simply because they happen to be right. Basically, we want our children to practice discernment without being snooty about it. Yet because we are all sinners, we cross the line between discernment and judgmentalism more easily than we wish. We all sometimes fail to love our neighbor and to recognize the sin in our own heart as well as the sin in his. As we live in daily repentance and forgiveness, we can only trust in God’s grace to carry us through this parenting challenge and to work through us despite our errors.
We know that we must somehow transition from sheltering our little ones to releasing our prepared, discerning grown-ones. Newborn babies can see the contrast between black and white, but their eyesight is too undeveloped to distinguish between shades of blue and green. The moral sense of children is rather like the visual sense of an infant: to children, the world is black and white. Things and people are either good or bad. The concept of being simultaneously a saint (saved by God’s grace), and yet a sinner, is difficult for them to grasp. So is the idea of showing compassionate love to someone “bad.” That is why we must model and teach this attitude. We are preparing our kids to live in the world as adults with adult vision—which means that we begin the process of releasing control while they are still tiny. It’s like the old adage about teaching a man to fish. If you shelter your children now, you protect them for a day. If you teach them to discern for themselves, you protect them for much longer.
How is this done? In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the Mirror of Erised shows each viewer the deepest, most desperate desire of his heart. Children are a bit of a cross between the Mirror of Erised and the mirror from Snow White: unflinchingly truthful, they mirror back the attitudes, habits, and even mannerisms that we adults might not otherwise have noticed in ourselves. Fearful, judgmental parents raise children who do not know how to deal with the world. Parents who demonstrate compassion toward the world raise children who do the same. It’s a rather frightening thing, because which of us is good enough to be a model for a child? On the other hand, my mom used to tell us kids, “If God had wanted you to have a perfect mother, He would have given you one.” Even our own imperfections and sins can be a way to show our children the need for daily repentance and forgiveness. We have been discussing the problem of fearful, moralistic judgmentalism; and it’s time to hear from homeschool graduates about how parents have instead raised children who speak the truth in love.
Just as the homeschool grads highlighted certain parenting pitfalls, they also discussed parenting habits that encourage children to learn discernment instead of judgmentalism.
Parenting Habit 1: Take Yourself Lightly
I once heard a Christian speaker say that in order to avoid instilling a “spirit of silliness,” parents should stop their older children from acting goofy to make the baby laugh. Apparently this speaker considers solemn babies more godly than giggly ones. Unfortunately, he has it all wrong. It is fatal to take life too seriously. After all, life is crazy. It is full of contradictions and paradoxes, of both breathtaking waterfalls and crushing tsunamis, of chocolate and arsenic, of laughing babies and tragic miscarriages. It is a world that was plunged into death and destruction by sin, and yet redeemed by the awe-inspiring death of God Himself. It is full of people who are saints and sinners at the same time, and who say (as Saint Paul did) that they do things that they do not wish to do, and fail to do the things they wish. We’d all go crazy if we didn’t laugh.
According to G.K. Chesterton, “Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.” Successful parents preserve a sense of humor and a sense of proportion. Focusing on the knowledge that God has already overcome sin, death, and the devil allows us to see everything else in a balanced way. Just as we should often be able to laugh at our own mistakes, we should be able to recognize that many of our standards are adiaphora: things which are neither commanded nor prohibited in Scripture, and therefore are open to interpretation and Christian liberty. Acknowledging this does not lessen the importance of having standards or suggest that our standards are not wise and helpful. It merely means that we do not get twisted out of shape when other people choose different ones, and we do not model defensive scorn or judgmentalism toward those people. I know a family that guides their children toward sensible relationships with young people of the opposite gender. The parents provide concrete teaching on the subject, but they don’t act shocked or solemnly disapproving when the teenage peers of their kids gush about dating, boys, and the boy band One Direction. Instead, the family gives a collective eye roll, shrugs, and says, “Yeah, Marcia/Susie/Mary can be a little silly about that stuff.” Their kids feel that much of the world’s silliness is simply not worth their time. They are less likely to become best friends with Marcie/Susie/Mary, but they see no need to shun or hide from her just because she is sometimes silly.
Taking oneself lightly includes fleeing perfectionism. High standards, a good work ethic, and the quest for excellence are all good things, but they become paralyzing when they are applied so stringently that children are taught to fear and dread mistakes. Children will not be able to grow up and make their own decisions if they feel that any academic, moral, or social slip is unpardonable.
A family’s perfectionism can be manifested in many ways. One grad recalled how it appeared in her own life:
“In my experience, homeschooling causes a high level of perfectionism and personal judgment of self that can be detrimental in adult life. Because lessons and knowledge are taught at the speed in which a child can handle them, the parents work with the children until they fully understand a concept. That is a worthwhile goal, but it causes an expectation of perfection in everything that is not actually achievable. When transitioning into college, I would lock myself in my room sobbing if I received a 99% on an exam, because I felt like I failed. This was brought into every aspect of my life, not just school, because being a home schooled child there was no big wall between 'school' and 'life at home.' Soon the perfection demanded from the school part of homeschool became the perfection expected in the home part as well. It took years of counseling to even admit the level of fierce judgment on myself was abnormal, and looking back I can see a direct correlation with home schooling. It is not entirely to blame, but in an environment where you aren't doing something correctly until it is at A level, children can be formed to believe there is something wrong with them unless they are perfect at everything. When I pointed to other children who are not expected to be geniuses all the time, my parents tended to laugh it off 'oh they go to PUBLIC school' as if that explained it” [A young woman from California].
Another grad said,
When the focus of a Homeschool is on academic perfection or religious rules (vs. instilling a heart after God) then it can twist a young person into either living in fear that they don’t measure up to a standard or they look down on people who haven’t met their goals. [Stephen].
Yet another graduate talked about how his parents tried so hard to perfectly protect his moral atmosphere that they became very controlling. He later regretted not having experienced more normal situations as a child, because it was so difficult to transition to dealing with the actual, real world when he became an adult. The problem with perfectionism is that it can be an expression of idolatry: it can be an attempt to take on God’s role and “ensure” our desired outcome.
Parenting Habit 2: Act Like You Like People
I know individuals who whisper the same question every time you introduce them to someone new, no matter what the setting is: “Is he/she saved?” Yet surely it should not immediately matter whether the guest across from them is a Mennonite, a Hindu, or an atheist; or whether their clerk at Trader Joe’s goes to church or a bar on Sunday morning. First and foremost, everyone is a human being for whom Christ died. We can (and should) treat everyone with the same courtesy and consideration. We should be able to feel interest in people simply because they are human (this is an issue of attitude, not of introversion or extroversion or the need to become bosom buddies with everyone we meet). It is important that our children not receive the impression that when meeting new people, they should immediately attempt to see if the person is somehow disqualified from being their friend. We can all learn something from the man who has lived in Africa, the woman who can knit with her eyes closed, and the college student who has just started a new project. As we get to know these people we may comment on the differences in our beliefs and theirs, but we should do so in a way that is respectful of their humanity.
The homeschool graduates talked about the importance of reaching out to a range of people and showing your children that others need not be “just like them.”
“Family ‘culture’ really is crucial. A strong bond with family is good, but it can become too exclusive, leading to a lifestyle wherein everything from style of dress to personal habits to manner of speaking is something of an "in-joke" designed to strengthen the family bond by excluding others. This is not good. Those families who instead regularly host a variety of guests at their dinner table or who participate in activities outside of home and church help their children by exposing them to a variety of individuals unlike themselves. As the children observe the adults interacting or as they interact with children quite unlike themselves, they gain empathy and unwittingly are forced to practice discernment and kindness.” [Heather]
“I believe that having friends and acquaintances from a variety of cultures, walks of life, and socio-economic levels is crucial as well. When we see the variety of people that God created, and we see society from more perspectives than the white, middle-class, homeschooling perspective, I think we are less likely to fall into the easy traps of false superiority and judgmentalism. Living in a bubble can be cozy for a little while, but then the constriction of it can suck away growth and a chance to be the person you were meant to be: one who reflects the attributes of God of creativity, compassion, mercy, and unfailing love.” [G. Henderson]
They also discussed the need to teach children to be humble in their responses to others who are different.
“Part of [learning to love and enjoy people while being angry at wrong ideas] was a tendency wherein I got ‘shot down’ as it were when I tried to act superior - showing off my better knowledge would often lead to my own embarrassment when it turns out I didn't actually know what I was talking about, etc. Most of the time that was more of a God-thing, but I do remember one instance where the lesson was from my dad. It was during confirmation at church, and during a trivia game, I had given an answer that was declared wrong by the adult in charge. I was certain I was right, and went off to gather the necessary evidence. When I proved I had been right, Dad gave me a talking to about how letting go to have peace is sometimes more important than being right. Obviously it has stuck with me. I guess I'd say that the key to combating fear, judgmental-ism and superiority complexes is truth and humility ….we may know God's laws better than anyone else (probably not), but that just makes us all the more guilty of breaking them.” [Ean]
“Those who successfully navigate between this Scylla and Charybdis observe Saint Paul's admonition that Christians should live by ‘speaking the truth in love.’ Speaking the truth without intentionally teaching loving humility does indeed lead to false superiority and often cruel judgmentalism. Just as bad is the other extreme--probably espoused more heavily in the government schools--of a ‘love’ that ignores the truth in order to avoid offense (no real love at all, of course).” [Heather]
It is also important to show liking, as well as love, for those within our own families. Secure people are much better able to practice discernment without judgmentalism than are insecure people, and it is essential to a child’s security that he know that his parents like and approve of him and that they like each other. One grad points out:
I can’t quite say that I’ve seen a formula for success, every family is different. The one thing that I can say is in families where the children grow up and are functional adults there was/is a lot of “love” in the families. They had rules to follow but there was grace for mistakes and the children knew they were loved. [Stephen].
If we act like we like people, are interested in them, and are ready to show God’s love (regardless of whether or not we will be able to convert them), our children will pick up on our attitude.
Parenting Lesson 3: Bite Your Nails and Let Them Try
Harry Potter fans will recall the odious and ultimately evil character, Dolores Umbridge, who arrived at Hogwarts as a new teacher:
"When they entered the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom they found Professor Umbridge already seated at the teacher’s desk, wearing the fluffy pink cardigan of the night before and the black velvet bow on top of her head. Harry was again reminded forcibly of a large fly perched unwisely on top of an even larger toad."
It is essential to begin the “letting go process” from the beginning. Children need to face age-appropriate challenges and be given opportunities to practice discernment while their parents are still able to guide the process. Jessica, a homeschool graduate, commented on this. Her own parents worked hard to instill values. They also allowed her to make decisions. Sometimes they even insisted that she do so, by refusing to tell her what to do in age-appropriate situations, instead saying, “We trust your judgment.” This helped her become an independent adult who respected the right of others to make their own choices.
Allowing children to experience the world does not mean that we expect them to be adults. Their exposure should of course be controlled and appropriate. Books can be one way in which to observe and evaluate worldly philosophies, attitudes, and arguments. Church, service projects, and family hospitality can be a way to interact with people who come from a variety of backgrounds. In all of these situations, parents will of course be helping their children to process and evaluate what they see. As parents see their children’s maturity grow and therefore expand their freedom to read and interact with less supervision, they are teaching their children that discernment is something that can be practiced confidently. It does not require fear and judgmentalism.
Even though the graduates I spoke to pointed out flaws in homeschooling, they were very positive overall about their experience. One said,
“My mom always said, ‘Homeschooling isn’t perfect, but it’s better than what’s out there.’ I think that is a pretty important concept. We need to remember homeschooling is not perfect and never will be. But let’s also not blow its hangups out of proportion. I still believe it is the most effective way for parents to pass on their faith in Christ to their children. To me, that is what really matters.” [Neeva]
I'd like to thank the homeschool graduates who responded to my questions. It's such a homeschool thing to be willing to write out thoughtful, intelligent paragraphs on short notice!
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