Tuesday, November 5, 2013

How to Homeschool without Warping Your Kids: Adult Grads Report Back (II of III)

This article is part of a three-part series. Please read a Summary of the Project. 
Part I, “Are Homeschoolers Raising Judgmental Twerps?” looks at the issue of judgmentalism and argues that it is a real problem of which Christians parents should be aware and wary.
Part II, below, looks at specific pitfalls of parenting that seem to lead to fearful judmentalism and moralism. I realize that some parents err on the opposite side by failing to take the temptations of the world seriously or to focus on guiding their children in truth. This blog post is not addressed to them. Again, as I said in the summary of the project, I am writing from the assumption that homeschooling is a fantastic parenting option even though it is imperfect (nothing on earth is perfect). 
Part III, which will appear next Tuesday, looks at the positive side of how parents have raised kind, secure, pleasant children who love truth.  

Part II: “It’s a Scary World out There:” Three Parenting Pitfalls

Old-fashioned fairytales remind us that if we leave the path in the woods, we will probably meet someone who wants to eat us. The forest is teeming with well-spoken wolves and witches whose houses are made from baked goods. Yet fairytales are also populated by intrepid youngest sons, dispossessed princes, and faithful maidens who must venture out to seek their fortune in the wilderness, and who ultimately triumph over the wolves and witches in their path. This age-old ambiguity about the dangers of the wider world is also expressed in plenty of contemporary family stories: The Croods must venture out of their cave to survive, Merlin must stop over-protecting his son Nemo, and Rapunzel must exit her tower (frying pan in hand) despite the witch’s warnings that, “it’s a scary world out there” full of “men with pointy teeth.”

All parents face tension between the urge to keep their family safe, and the realization that ultimately they must give up control.  Christian homeschool parents are especially concerned because they fear spiritual wolves as well as physical and emotional ones. They look at the disintegration of modern society and start planning a tower for the whole family. Yet tower life is not a suitable long-term plan. God did not tell us to seek safety above all things. The parable of the talents in Matthew 25 describes a servant who is so afraid of losing his master’s money that he buries it in the ground in order to keep it safe, and yet is punished—he should instead have invested it. The Scriptures tell us to train our children, not to bury them. Of course, this training benefits from appropriate sheltering. Homeschoolers are only sensible to skip premature immersion in our society’s postmodern, R-rated culture until their children are grounded in the faith and have acquired a strong sense of what is healthy. Yet children grow up. One of the biggest challenges faced by the first-generation homeschool movement in which I grew up is that the parents (many of them adult converts to Christianity), had few models of how to transition from sheltering their children to letting them go; letting them take risks; letting them arm themselves with frying pans and set out to save the world or respond to the Great Commission. This led to several pitfalls that tend to produce fearful, overly-judgmental children. Three pitfalls in particular were discussed by the adult homeschool grads I spoke to. 

Parenting Pitfall #1: Trying to Control Everything

Parents who seek safety above all else are frightened of what the world may do to their children's faith. They figure that the solution is to take control and make sure that their children remain good Christians. Several of the graduates I spoke to weighed-in on this issue. A childhood acquaintance of mine, who was homeschooled and is now herself a mother, pointed out,
“You can't train your children to be Christians. You can train them to be good, moral, responsible, upstanding citizens; you can train them to be intelligent adults who will make solid decisions; you can make Christianity so attractive that they will want to be Christians, or the alternatives so terrifying that they will be too scared to ever leave; but you can't, in the true sense of either word, TRAIN them to be CHRISTIANS.”

Ultimately, salvation is the work of the Holy Spirit (not the Holy Homeschooling Parent) and it can be rejected by the most sheltered child on earth. After all, even Adam and Eve fell into sin, and they started off with an absolutely perfect world and no public schools in sight. One grad said,
“Parents who were successful [in my homeschooling experience] were not under the illusion that bringing their children home automatically ensured keeping wrong out. They worked hard to build a positive environment and one that recognized what James said in the first chapter of his epistle—men (and women, and children) are enticed away by their own desires, not solely by the temptations of a shiny and evil world. Successful parents taught their children to recognize what was morally right in any situation, including situations close to home; unsuccessful parents taught their children that the immoral situations only came from the outside.” [Nicole]

The problem with forgetting this is that even determined, well-meaning parents cannot see into their children’s hearts, and so they may focus on external appearances in their efforts at controlling the faith of their children. This leads to moralism. Pastor Jonathan Fisk points out the difference between morality and moralism in his book, Broken: 7 “Christian” Rules that Every Christian Ought to Break As Often As Possible by personifying moralism as someone who wants to lead Christians astray:
“Morality is a good thing, a knowledge of the truths created by God to make the world work efficiently and in harmony. But Moralism does not want you to worship God and believe in God’s morality. He wants you to worship you. Step 1 is teaching you to trust in morality as the path to finding God’s blessings. Step 2 is teaching you to place that morality on your own personal sliding scale…. The more you bend the “good” to fit yourself in it, the more you believe you actually have been a good person. You convince yourself you really have done the right thing most of the time…. When you look around, you start to get frustrated that no one else can measure up to the new, mostly good measure of all things: you.”

Moralists always become judgmental. Perhaps they must, because they have fallen into believing that their “goodness” is how they are saved, and they must drown recognition of their own daily imperfection with the reassurance of how much worse other people are. Moralism can be attractive to parents because it seems to give them control. They can make sure that their daughters never look a man in the eye until marriage. They can require skirts and head coverings. They can live on lentils and donate half the family salary to missions. Yet, at best, they are raising rather obnoxiously judgmental little Christians. At worst, they are raising idolatrous moralists. Several grads spoke of witnessing this moralistic control (all emphasis mine):

“… like any other tool, [homeschooling] is only as good as those who use it. Most of the homeschooled children I've known, myself included, have turned out fairly normal, and if they're still kind of prone to judgmental mindsets and world avoidance, it's usually drawn as much from the defensive attitude of American Christian culture as anything else. But I do think that homeschooling can be—again, it doesn't have to be—a symptom of a flawed parenting style that arises from a throw-the-baby-out-with-the-bathwater version of the Christian rejection of evil, and it sometimes involves controlling temperaments as well…. The latter is where you get real problems, and when the two are joined together, that's when you see spiritual and emotional (and on rare occasions, physical) abuse take place.” [Jenna]
“Homeschooling doesn't cause ‘fearful judgmentalism and a feeling of superiority’ unless those were the primary reasons for homeschooling. If you constantly keep your children from any contact with the outside world because it is evil and you fear its influence, they'll pick up on that. But homeschooling in itself doesn't have to cause these feelings…. I think the danger comes when parents use homeschooling, or any other sort of control, to intentionally limit their children's future. For instance, you think college is unnecessary, and so you don't even bother to give your child a solid high school education to build on. It's not right to make your adult child's decisions for him by omitting standard preparation.” [A childhood acquaintance]

One grad pointed out that controlling behavior is often tied to the mistaken idea that if one follows the teachings of some particular Christian or homeschool leader, good results are guaranteed:
Both judgmentalism and feelings of superiority are usually manifestations of either pride or ignorance (or a combo of both), fostered by teachers, environment or ideas. In my observation, families with this problem are those where parents routinely idolize certain rules or teachers, while painting all others who disagree with them in a bad light.” [Neeva]

When we place our faith in controlling our children’s lives, we abandon faith in God to work in their hearts and teach them to value goodness and truth. It leads to moralism, which leads to judgmentalism. It’s a bad road to go down.

Parenting Pitfall #2: Our Way or the Highway (to Hell)

As parents, we work hard to build a family lifestyle that is an expression of our faith. Yet we do not want to fall into the trap of “Christianity and.” C.S. Lewis describes this danger in The Screwtape Letters (the fictional epistles of an experienced demon to a novice tempter):
“Let him [the man they are tempting] begin by treating the Patriotism or the Pacifism as a part of his religion. Then let him, under the influence of partisan spirit, come to regard it as the most important part. Then quietly and gradually nurse him on to the stage at which the religion becomes merely part of the ‘cause,’ in which Christianity is valued chiefly because of the excellent arguments it can produce…. Once you have made the World an end, and faith a means, you have almost won your man, and it makes very little difference what kind of worldly end he is pursuing.”

If we merge homeschooling with Christianity, we are on the path to creating our own religion. We must remember that even though homeschooling is good, and even if it is an expression of our faith, it does not save us. We could be Christians and send our kids to public school. There are Christians who choose to do that, and even if we happen to think that they are missing out, unwise, or even delusional, they are no less saved by God’s grace than we are. Our children need to realize this. Quite frankly, so do we, because the slope that C.S. Lewis describes is slippery indeed! 

Even if they avoid tying educational choices to their theology, sometimes parents inadvertently convey the idea that homeschoolers are superior as Christians (or as people).
“I feel like when I was homeschooled, homeschooling was rather new and controversial. For that reason my mom felt she had to spend a lot of time defending their choice to homeschool me. So I was trained in homeschool defense at all times. We had a list of reasons it was "better" than traditional school and we used those whenever asked. I think it's easy for a child to think that means they [themselves] are "better". For a child, it can be either pride inducing when this is true, or demoralizing when it isn't. Either way, it is warping.” [G. Henderson]

Another grad profited from treating homeschooling as simply the best choice for his family:
“For me, home-schooling was never the "best" option for everyone, just the one I desired to take.  I knew, from my youth group at church then and (in my capacity as youth sponsor in church today) now, many kids who attended public school who were at least my equal in zeal and belief during the same years. Perhaps that is some of the key that you are looking for.  If you, as the parent, treat the world as morally inferior, and a place to be retreated from, so will your kids.  If, however, you treat the world as fallen, but still our (temporary) home, and indeed the field we are sent into to be "salt and light", again, the kids will follow suit…. I can't say that I have ever noticed overt judgmental-ism or feelings of superiority caused by homeschooling.  Certainly I never had those feelings.” [Ean]
Children tend to see the world in black and white and to feel that their own way is the "correct" way (I remember being astonished and disapproving when I spent the night at a friend's house and discovered that her family did not use butter knives to cut their pancakes). However, parents need to gently teach their children that our choices do not make us better than anyone else. They may make life easier, or pleasanter, or even be more in accordance with truth, but they do not save us. Only God does that.

Parenting Pitfall #3: Too Isolated a Tower

The demonic tempter of C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters says,
“All extremes, except extreme devotion to the Enemy [God], are to be encouraged…. Any small coterie, bound together by some interest which other men dislike or ignore, tends to develop inside itself a hothouse mutual admiration, and towards the outer world, a great deal of pride and hatred which is entertained without shame because the ‘Cause’ is its sponsor and it is thought to be impersonal. Even when the little group exists originally for the Enemy's own purposes, this remains true. We want the Church to be small not only that fewer men may know the Enemy but also that those who do may acquire the uneasy intensity and the defensive self-righteousness of a secret society or a clique.”

I am a huge fan of finding like-minded friends. There is nothing wrong with socializing in circles where one’s moral values will be supported, and in choosing to protect one’s children from the influence of peers with unhealthy attitudes toward life. However, they say that every vice is the corruption of a virtue. When homeschoolers build little bridges between their towers so that none of their children will ever mix with the ungodly peasantry down below, they are communicating something rather destructive. They are teaching their children that the peasants are either rabidly dangerous or unworthy of normal human interaction. Our children should not think that their faith is so fragile, and God’s power so weak, that they will be helplessly corrupted by listening to what a pagan peasant has to say.

In addition, parents must not forget that someday children will be adults who need to function in the outside world (regardless of the potential for meeting “men with pointy teeth”). Not knowing how to function in the world, or how to deal with people who espouse radically different beliefs than oneself, is crippling. A grad comments:
“Living in isolation [as a homeschooler in the country]…was both amazing and terrible…. Amazing in the sense is was close to perfection. I have amazing childhood memories... Terrible in the sense that life could only get worse after you've lived in perfection. This would have been impossible without homeschooling…. Entry into the real world was that much harsher…. One of the biggest issues I have with homeschooling is the one way door it is. You are forever dooming your child to not understanding the culture around them. Sure, they can understand it on an intellectual level perhaps, or even study it. Or write or doctoral thesis about it. But, they will never be a part of it. Some will come close, so close that this won't matter. But, in that process they will alienate many/most values they were raised to respect. That's a big choice to force on a kid / young adult…. On the other hand, the world is kinda over rated…. ” [A young man from the West Coast]

The grad from the West Coast (quoted above) makes a good point: if parents shut out too much of the world, they can put their children into the difficult position of either living exactly as their parents did or of rebelling completely. All middle ground is lost. Another grad brings up an equally interesting danger of the tower experience:
“I do not think that my home schooling experience caused either fearful judgmentalism or a feeling of superiority. If anything, the emphasis on critical thinking and understanding has enabled me to put myself in other’s shoes, so to speak. I might add that I have struggled with those problems as I become involved at the seminary. I would imagine that the theology and ‘ghetto’ nature of the seminary that encouraged that kind of mentality could easily be present in some home schooling environments. Perhaps that's a greater danger when the home schooling is done as part of a group? In my particular home schooling appearance, we were basically on our own after the first couple of years, and so by necessity I had to interact cordially with people quite different than myself. When I went to college, I noticed that with a group of people like me I could simply socialize with them and basically ignore everyone else to an extent.” [A young man from Ohio]

As this young man from Ohio points out, surrounding ourselves constantly and exclusively with people “just like us” can have a bad effect. It can condition our children to think that everyone should always be “just like us,” and to forget that we might actually learn something from outsiders if we give them a fair chance. In fact, the outsiders might also be able to learn something from us, if we are willing to be open and friendly. 

Life in Rapunzel’s tower seems safe, but in reality it is death. That is because the real problem is not wolves and witches. It is the sin that lurks within our own hearts and fools us into making our tower something that ultimately comes between us, our children, and God. The tower can become an idol because we end up trusting in the tower's power. Yet we cannot hide from sin by staying in a tower. All we can do is to flee to the Cross. Through Christ’s death, we receive the forgiveness for our daily sins, including our fear, judgmentalism, and moralism.

Parents face a complicated challenge. If we know that sheltering our little ones is good and that releasing our adult children is appropriate, how do we make the transition? How do we prepare our intrepid princes and princesses for life beyond the safe paths of their homeschooling experience? The answer will be different for every family and each child, depending on situation, personality, and other factors. Yet the homeschool grads that I talked to had some excellent advice that all of us can learn from. In Part III (coming next Tuesday), we will look at their advice to parents and their discussion of parenting choices that have helped to raise pleasant, well-balanced, Christian young people.


  1. Congratulations on your baby!!!! So glad to hear of his safe arrival.

    Sorry about the delay in commenting!

    I think the "trying to control everything" part is a huge deal, one of the really mistaken reasons for homeschooling. It seems to be a common, subtle driving force, though it's far from universal; my own parents were reacting against a culture they had suffered under, but I don't see them as controlling.

    As for judgmental young homeschooled Christians, I think the internet has cured me of worrying much about that. :) I've run into WAY too many self-righteous moralists, usually young college grads who went through public school, people who never seem to miss a chance to forcibly shame (by mob, if possible) anyone they can quantify as an enemy of the public ideal. Yeah, I think Christians should do better, and yeah, I cringe at some of the things spouted cheerfully by some of the Christians I know; I just don't really think former homeschoolers have a corner on the problem.

    Which is not to diminish the importance of this post and this discussion. A highly defensive, battleground mindset--a vision of self and self-identified disenfranchised group as the tiny army following Aragorn against Sauron and his hordes at the gates of Mordor--that's not healthy for anyone. It is out there, it is common among homeschoolers, and it is an awfully unbalanced way to come at relationships to humans, whether singular or en masse.

  2. Thanks, Jenna!

    I really enjoy reading your insightful comments. You're right that we live in a world where mob shaming seems increasingly popular (just look at the way the internet runs around getting worked up about things). This raises the interesting point that the problems people discuss as belonging to conservative homeschoolers (judgmentalism, boys who don't grow up and get lives of their own, etc.) are manifestations of things that are also happening, sometimes with a different flavor, in popular culture.

  3. Hi Anna, I'm late to comment here, but I've just been browsing your blog after linking over from Moxie Wife. Anyway, as a homeschool grad myself, I really like this series. Part II here especially . . . yup, you nailed it.

    1. The funny thing is that even though I find it easy to explain (in theory!) why parents mustn't commit these errors, that doesn't necessarily make it any easier to avoid them completely in my own parenting (not that I've had too much parenting experience yet). It's a good thing that kids are so resilient, and that God works through parents despite their errors!


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