The HSLDA promotes a certain image of the average homeschool family, a cozy picture which convinces thousands of parents each year to withdraw their children from public school.
Parents in the conservative Christian subculture explicitly use homeschooling to shelter children from secular beliefs. Regardless of the degree of their sheltering, they often want to provide an emotionally and spiritually healthy educational environment for their child. While HSLDA propaganda acknowledges that homeschool parents experience a range of “ups and downs”, it neglects to provide critical, data-driven information on specific challenges. God will lead any willing parent to successfully homeschool, they say, avoiding the issue that some families could be considered high-risk for unsatisfactory, even abusive, homeschooling outcomes.
Instead, these promotional materials vaguely assert that God will use each parent’s strengths to provide a positive and effective home education environment. They assure potential homeschooling parents that, regardless of their educational background, any follower of Christ can give their child a better, safer intellectual and social development than formal schooling would.
My experience as a neglected homeschool student growing up in an abusive, dysfunctional family is testimony that this scenario does not always unfold so neatly.
My mother was encouraged by HSLDA propaganda to homeschool me, and my parents were enabled by lack of regulatory oversight to proceed with little consideration for my needs.
Over the past few years, the confusion and pain that has haunted me for over a decade has driven me to tease apart how my bizarre past came to be and how I managed to survive it. I grew up in a conservative, fundamentalist Southern Baptist family. True to form, my parents believed that children, relative to adults, lack basic rights of respect and agency. They bought into the Dobsonian authoritarian parenting philosophy that rose in popularity during the 1980s: parents are responsible for their children’s eternal salvation, a task best achieved by breaking the child’s willful inner core of sin through severe physical punishment and verbal shaming.
My mother, in particular, was extremely controlling and sheltering. As long as I can remember, I had to sit patiently and listen to her rants about “contemporary culture” and her demonization of public school, working moms, divorced couples, the existence of sexuality, almost all the music out there, and (of course) spaghetti-strap tank tops.
I later realized that her polarized perspective, especially her black-and-white thinking, relates to her poorly managed mental health issues, which most likely expand far beyond official diagnoses of major depression and anxiety disorder. She partially blamed these illnesses on energy lost in battling the devil — particularly in guarding her children against influences of the more liberal family members who were, in fact, instruments of the devil placed on earth to challenge her faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, her personal friend and savior.
My mother’s parenting decisions were driven by fear and paranoia. She lacked empathy, a psychological freedom that allowed her to place ideology above a child’s needs.
My father’s choices were driven by his desire to pacify my mother. He wanted peace and quiet, a need I was happy to comply with, as I had been trained to do since birth.
Life in public school grades K-3 was no picnic. My mother frequently initiated conflict with teachers and administrators. She confronted teachers over which G-rated secular movies were shown in class; she became incensed when her VHS cassette of a cartoon Christian Easter Story was not allowed to be shown due to religious content. Appeal to follow the norms of mainstream society means nothing to someone who is convinced they have discovered the one right way to live.
As I faced my entrance into junior high school, my mother grew terrified of my impending exposure to a more rigorous secular education, jealous of the increased time I would spend away from her during extracurricular activities, and paranoid of “worldly influences” from the more complex peer relationships I might form. She expressed alarm when I began budding as an independent person. I recall her rebuking me for my change in personality, blaming my new attitudes and opinions on peer influence, and shaming me for “becoming a different person”. No developmental change could be attributed to my unique thoughts and emotions; her shame- and fear-based authoritarian parenting creed declares children do not (or should not) have their own. Her need to use her child as a mirror to understand herself prevented her from acknowledging my identity.
My mother’s behavior created intense chaos and embarrassment for me as a child. I became fearful of her near-constant scrutiny of my tone, expressions, and reactions. In his passivity, my father did little to mitigate the negative impacts my mother’s intrusive, unpredictable behavior had on me.
My journey down the rabbit hole begins when I was placed in a Baptist private school, which I actually liked because the 4th grade classes were small and intimate. But half-way through the school year, my mother once again generated conflict with school officials. The more “secular” aspects of an otherwise quite religious curriculum were questionable. She had taken a part-time job in the after school care program and developed irresolvable interpersonal problems with her co-workers. Suddenly everyone at this school was bad, dumb, not up to her standards. She abruptly moved us back to the local public school for the second half of the year.
I remember this mid-year move as a turning point in my childhood, when I first fully realized that my mother had serious problems which were not being addressed by other adults in my life. I realized that her selfish whims would be catered to at the expense of my needs. That I had to shut up and put up, as I would not be listened to nor respected. I silently grieved the departure, leaving friends I would likely never see again. My last few months in public school were disastrous. I struggled to cope with the change, was self-conscious of my mother’s erratic behavior, and developed behavioral problems. My grades fell from As to Cs. This shift strengthened my mother’s resolve to remove me from this “toxic environment” and teach me at home.
Around this time, my mother became attracted to HSLDA’s portrayal of the homeschool family. Through HSLDA, she learned that children did not need to learn how to be independent, mature teenagers because the concept of “teens” is a modern myth. She declared that dating would not be allowed, but she would supervise a parent-controlled courtship. Participation in athletics, the arts, or science labs would have to be carefully censored and restricted to prevent exposure to un-Godly influences. She learned that mainstream education, socialization and rampant acquaintance-making would be unnecessary for and harmful to my development.
As a homeschooled child I would, presumably, learn how to become an adult through observing and imitating my mother in the home. As an emancipated 18-year-old, I would then either attend a Christian Bible-based private university (Pensacola and Bob Jones were popular ideas) or marry some family-approved fellow I had successfully courted under her supervision.
This was the reality I faced as a 10-year-old girl.
This might have all been faintly reasonable had my family been functional and my mother a healthy, responsible adult. Rather, my mother was increasingly overwhelmed by self-gratifying fantasies and obsessions. She became easily bored with reality, distressed by responsibility. Clearly, between her crises and my family’s financial struggles, even courtship and extracurriculars would not happen. My father was surely aware of these weaknesses and would have had compelling reason to question her competency, but he did not intervene. Even as a young child, I could see that I would not be taken care of in this bizarre world. And I would not have the childhood or education that would prepare me for a successful, fulfilling life in the real world.
This nightmare was my reality.
And so, beginning with 5th grade, I was “homeschooled”. I bracket this term in quotes, because without doing so would be an insult to families who legitimately home educate. At first my mother kept me involved with the local Christian home educators group. We attended meetings, field trips, and play dates. My mother purchased a years’ stock of A Beka, Bob Jones, and Saxon Math textbooks. She planned out a few months of lessons and graded my work for a few weeks.
She voraciously consumed every hyperbolic HSLDA-issued line about using homeschooling to save children in the “culture war”.
At first this seemed better than being in school because I suffered less conflict and chaos. But, predictably, over time the people in our homeschool group became bad, dumb, not up to her standards. My mother withdrew herself socially, effectively withdrawing me from the outside world except for trips to the public library and grocery store, occasional visits with extended family.
My mother’s mental health declined severely as my eight years spent “homeschooling” progressed. For much of this time, my mother slept all day in a depressive state while I cooked, cleaned, watched television, and read library books. My mother continued to purchase textbooks on an annual basis, but most remained uncracked until boredom drove me to fill out and “grade” workbooks on my own. Aside from the secular math curriculum, information I gleaned from the homeschool curricula was uselessly biased toward a fundamentalist Christian worldview.
Somehow I was aware of this and, when a particular subject interested me, I filled in gaps using the latest technological innovation we had acquired: the Internet.
Part Two >