I don’t usually write in reaction to or dialogue with other bloggers. Writing about my own life is emotionally vulnerable, but non-controversial. I don’t blog frequently. When I do write, I do so because I need to say something. But I need to say something right now that is both personal, and possibly controversial.
There has recently been a growing awareness of the devastating problems of abuse and oppression in the conservative Christian homeschooling community, thanks to brave people like my friend R.L. Stollar, a Community Coordinator for Homeschoolers Anonymous. The stories on H.A. are blood-chilling to me, because they sound so familiar. I knew these people, or people like them.
As I’ve read these stories, I’ve been thinking about my own upbringing in a conservative Christian home. I am not the perfect picture of mental health. I’ve struggled with depression and self-destructive behaviors. I’ve had (have?) my share of identity and image complexes.
Complexes notwithstanding, however, I launched into college and adult life with a strong education, an intact faith, and an overall positive and grateful outlook on my own homeschooling education. So as I read these articles and think about the people I know personally who had horrible homeschooling experiences, I am trying to figure out what made my story different. I have a few ideas.
I do not imagine this to be a definitive or even generalizable list. I am so aware that I grew up in very, very privileged circumstances. I want to write this gently. I want to write in a spirit of gratitude, not out of pride, authority, or judgment.
I want to lend my voice in support of those who have experienced abuse and hardship from the homeschool community.
But the thing I do best with my voice is to tell my own honest story. So that’s what I’m doing. If you are a homeschool parent or considering homeschooling, let me share a beautiful example of wisdom and responsibility with you. If you are someone who has experienced the unhealthy side of homeschooling, I am sorry. I am so sorry. And my prayers are with you. I hope we can make things better.
Before I begin my list, let me describe my background. I was homeschooled from sixth grade through high school graduation, and attended a private Christian school before that. I wouldn’t go so far as to call my parents hyper-conservative, as I am all too familiar with startling extremes more deserving of that title. My parents weren’t trying to marry off my sisters or me as child brides. However, my upbringing was sheltered enough to shock even many of my friends at my conservative Christian university.
I wasn’t allowed to watch Lion King or Pocahontas as a kid, because of the “New Age stuff.” Until I left for college, the only R-rated film I’d seen was Passion of the Christ. I wasn’t allowed to date in high school, and in fact had to ask for permission to date after I was already 18 and in college. I wasn’t allowed to wear spaghetti strap shirts, and sometimes even my tank tops were considered too revealing. I read “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” repeatedly, not only because I was convinced that dating was evil and that courtship was Jesus’ perfect plan for my love life, but because I thought the cute anecdotes about happily courting couples were romantic and even a bit racy. As in, oh my goodness, this is the part where Joshua Harris talks about kissing. Gasp. Giggle.
That’s where I came from. Yet, somehow, I emerged thankful for my upbringing. Given the choice, I’d do it again.
So here is my list. Here are the ways my mother homeschooled me without screwing up my life.
1) She treated homeschooling like a tool, not an agenda.
My mother decided to homeschool my brother, who has Asperger’s Syndrome, when the school system failed to offer a supportive solution for his high IQ and low social skills. She started homeschooling me when I, socially misfit and academically bored, came home from my private Christian school in tears too many times. My two sisters followed suit a year later. However, when my youngest sister showed signs of wanting more social opportunities, my mother put her back in private school. When my brother needed more classroom experience and study skills, my mom drove him to a charter school a few days a week, homeschooling him the rest of the time so he could continue to thrive academically in the most comfortable environment. In high school, one of my sisters butted heads with my mother on academic decisions. Rather than demand compliance, my mother enrolled her in a public high school. Halfway into her second year in public high school, my sister wrote my parents a letter asking if she could try homeschooling again. And they did.
My mom has told me, “It’s very difficult to homeschool a child—especially a teenager—who doesn’t want to be. High school students want and need more autonomy over their education. Some people think that’s a battle you have to win. But I don’t think it’s worth fighting at the detriment of the relationship.”
Because of this continual reevaluation and adjusting of our educational options, at one point my three siblings and I were being educated in four different ways: one in private school, one in public school, one part time at a charter school and part time homeschooled, and one (me) fully homeschooled. My mother homeschooled us, not because she was interested in pushing homeschooling as the only or best option, but only when she believed that it truly was the best option in practice.
2) She made academics a priority.
Not only is my mother a pediatrician, highly educated in mathematics and science, but she is also very knowledgeable about literature and writing. Because of her educational background, my mother not only provided us with a rigorous and fascinating science and math education, she graciously welcomed other homeschooling families to join our academic endeavors. On a weekly and sometimes daily basis, we had “classmates” from other homeschooling families in our dining room dissecting cow eyes and puzzling over trigonometry problems.
However, in areas where my mother felt she could not provide us with a comparable or better education than the private and public schools, she found help. Since she is not fluent in a second language, she hired Spanish tutors for us (and once again invited other homeschooling families over to our house to join our Spanish class). She purchased computer software and videos to supplement—though not replace—her instruction. We utilized distance and online learning programs. She sought out the best.
My mother also made it clear that we would never use the flexible schedule afforded by homeschooling to make academics secondary to our extra-curricular activities. Like many of our homeschooled friends, my sisters and I competed in a national speech and debate league for homeschooled highschoolers. However, we were never allowed to research until our school work on core subjects was completed for the day (the most we could hope for was to work ahead or bargain away our weekends in order to schedule a full day of uninterrupted research). My mother also cautioned against an overly rigorous tournament schedule when she found we were falling behind in our core subject work as a result of too many long, exhausting debate tourney weekends.
We all were involved in athletics and arts, but never to the detriment of our school work. We were all taught domestic skills and were responsible for household chores, but we weren’t expected to be miniature parents. I’ve sewn a few skirts. I’m a reasonably competent cook. That’s about it. Academics came first.
3) She raised her daughters and son with disabilities to have careers.
My mother kind of vetoed my first desired career of International Singing Sensation. In the same breath, however, she warned against hoping to become a stay-at-home mom without a backup plan. “Everyone woman should have a marketable skill,” was her mantra. “You can’t control when you’ll get married. What if you stay single? What if your husband loses his job? Or dies? What if you can’t support your family on one income? You have to have a marketable skill.”
As a physician who gave up a brilliant and beloved medical career in order to homeschool four children, my mother was certainly a fan of stay-at-home moms. I will be eternally grateful for her sacrifice. However, she was also a fan of being realistic. Just because she, by God’s grace, had the financial means and circumstances to homeschool us never meant we should expect the same privilege. She pointed out examples of women in our lives, married and single, who had chosen wise career paths and were capable of supporting themselves and, if need (or desire) be, their families.
At the age of 26, I have never been in a relationship. I could be single forever. But I have a fulfilling career that I love. I shudder to think how my self-esteem would be currently suffering were I waiting on a husband to give me my purpose in life. I shudder to think how I would be affording an apartment of my own right now, had I pursued International Singing Sensation or Rich Husband as my primary provision in adult life.
My brother, meanwhile, just got his first job wrapping silverware at Red Robin. We are so proud of him.
4) She lived like a whole person.
One of the best things my mother has done for her children has been to live like her children are not her whole life. We certainly take up most of her time, and I like to think that we’re the most awesome part of her life. But we aren’t all of it.
Once I came home from college to discover my mother beating on our kitchen barstools with drumsticks. “I’m taking a Taiko drumming class,” she explained. While still homeschooling my youngest sister, my mother has been taking classes on health and medicine in third world countries to prepare her for medical missions trips. She participates in runs and bike races. She takes dance lessons and cooking classes. She calls me to tell me what she’s learning in her Bible studies. She speaks like her world is still getting bigger and brighter.
I believe she loves me unconditionally and deeply. I believe my mother finds joy and fulfillment in parenting. Her dedication and sacrifices attest to this. My mother, however, is also a doctor, friend, chicken enthusiast, poodle lover, thrift store ninja, gardener, health and fitness nut, dedicated church volunteer, and Bananagrams champion. And I am so glad she is all of these things. She sacrificed much—more than most moms, I think, if such comparison be possible or moral. She homeschooled us. She didn’t lose herself in us. Just when I thought she’d poured all of herself into us, she somehow proved that her soul was still individual and exquisite, working out her own salvation with fear and trembling, defining herself by herself and God and not by us. She has never stopped becoming more awesome.
In addition to her insistence on a viable career, my mother’s dedication to lifelong learning and growth and fun have done wonders for my own self-esteem. By behaving like a whole person while unconditionally loving her children, she taught me by example that there is life beyond being a wife and mother, however sacrosanct those roles may be. They are not the entire definition of womanhood—even Biblical womanhood.
My mother has three daughters. We are all conservative Christian women. But we are all fierce.
5) She picked her battles.
This might seem contradictory to the earlier description of my sheltered upbringing, but the truth is that my mom did not micromanage our preferences or choices in many areas. It’s true that my mother “sheltered” us as kids. However, our dialogues—even when I was young—led me to see that her end goal in doing so was to train our hearts, minds, and habits before entering autonomous adulthood. She didn’t want to control us or turn us into perpetual children. Even when I disagreed with her practices (I remember hours of argument over certain movies or certain boys), her open communication and clear purpose kept me sane. And, true to her word, she recognized and responded to our growing need and merit for more freedom. We not only eventually saw the movie “Lion King,” we saw the live musical as a family.
When discussing my choices, or my siblings’ choices, my mother often said, “If it’s not immoral, dangerous, or illegal, I let it go.” And she did. She has never been the kind of parent who faked superficial approval or “support” when she disagreed with our choices. She’d give advice and make her opinions clear. We’d have long conversations. But she also let go.
When I did end up in a mess because of my choices, she couldn’t be shocked. I could tell her anything, and she never got mad. She never tried to make me feel ashamed. At most, she’d sigh and say to give thanks because things could’ve been worse. And we’d work through it.
Probably the greatest example of my mother’s battle-picking wisdom was when she gave my sister and me the freedom to attend a church of our choice. At one point when I was in high school, my immediate family was spread out over three different churches. Although I knew this was not my mother’s ideal—not only did she dislike the separation in our family, but she had theological and practical issues with the church I was attending—she didn’t insist. She let it go.
Looking back, I realize how untenable her choice might’ve seemed to other conservative families. My mother chose to let us attend a church she didn’t like, recognizing my responsibility for my own soul and placing trust in both God and me to work it out. Far from damaging my spiritual life, her trust—combined with her fervent example of faith and continued encouragement to seek God—prevented me from becoming resentful towards my upbringing and motivated me to earnestly search for truth.
6) She learned, grew, and was willing to change her parenting and teaching practices.
My mother gets excited about learning new things. I cannot count the number of times I’ve heard her say, “I used to think… but I just learned…!!!”
My mother constantly reevaluated our education and family routines, and tried new things. If we complained about a particular curriculum, my mother found something we enjoyed more. If we struggled with a subject, she changed her teaching method. When I was in high school, I wasn’t allowed to have a boyfriend. My youngest sister, currently in high school, has had two boyfriends. She dates with parent approval and supervision (she cleverly jokes about wanting to write a book called “A Homeschooler’s Guide to Dating: Table for Three, Please!”).
A few years ago, my mother called me and asked, “Your sister says you think that not letting you date in high school causes problems with your dating life, now. Do you really think that’s true?” I explained, no, I didn’t think that—well, not exactly… and we talked about the positive and negative outcomes of being allowed to date at a young age.
I will always remember that phone call, because she was willing to initiate a conversation about her parenting choices, and to hear my answers. As she raises my youngest sister and faces many of the same educational challenges she faced with me, she occasionally will ask what I remember of a particular program or educational experience. While her fundamental values have changed very little, my mother is honest with herself and reflective with us about her parenting and teaching.
7) She balanced doctrine with charity.
When my sister and I participated in homeschool debate, we became very analytic about theology and doctrine. The elevated place of knowledge, competition, and piety in the homeschool community was sometimes a deadly combination. My mother recognized the danger in this and did her best to temper it. Although she did support and encourage us in pursuit of Biblical knowledge—ever valuing education and truth—she also cautioned us.
I find it ironic that, in some ways, I was the grumpy fundamentalist in high school, while my mother was the soft voice of moderation. She did her best to check our bent towards theological correctness with love, Christian practice, and relational devotion to God. When I would come home from church with judgmental comments on the sermon, she would remind me to be a charitable listener and learner. “How can you worship when you’re constantly criticizing?” I remember her asking. She was also very quick to remind us not to criticize people in our eagerness to criticize doctrines. She encouraged us to question the motivation of our critical attitudes. She pointed to holy and loving people with limited theological educations.
The older I got, the more I saw, as she had, how theological correctness was used as a pretext for competition and unnecessary division amongst believers. After high school, it was years before I could stomach another conversation about predestination and freewill. Not only was my mother’s attitude godly and loving, but it kept the peace in our sometimes theologically divided household. I can’t imagine the theological brawls that would have occurred in our home, had my mother demanded agreement on every doctrinal point, or not attempted to reign in our zealous debates.
I’ve seen some of my most doctrinally correct and rigid friends—and their hyper-conservative parents—break when their preconceptions about God and reality smashed against tragedy, better arguments, or simply the wear of time. I’ve been there too—nearly. When I ran out of good arguments, though, I still knew God, still knew love, and so I held on. I’ve believed in predestination. I’ve decried it. I’ve attended many churches trying to figure out what this Christianity thing should look like. But I’ve always believed. If not for my mother’s guidance towards love and relationship with Christ, this might not have been true.
But I’ve always believed.
By the way, I let my mom proof-read this post. Her response? She thinks I gave her too much credit. What was she doing when I emailed her? Trying to catch up on sleep in her car between rounds at a homeschool debate tournament, because she woke up at 4:30am. Typical homeschool mom.