By R.L. Stollar, HA Community Coordinator
As Matt Walsh once said, “Let’s talk about everything as hyperbolically as possible.”
Except Matt Walsh never said that.
Then again, no politician ever said, “Let’s treat all homeschool parents like felony child abusers,” which was the title of Walsh’s December 18, 2013 post on homeschooling.
I read Walsh’s homeschooling post the same way I read many of his other posts: with a mixture of bemusement, facepalms, and sadness. Sometimes he has interesting observations; but all the times, whatever potential insights he could be making are lost in his predilection for hyperbole and grandstanding.
Matt Walsh is Rush Limbaugh 2.0: Same Hyperbole, New Tattoos!
In his homescholing post, Walsh stands on a soapbox of “parental rights” and speaks dramatically about how if parents do not have “the unquestioned and absolute right to teach and raise our own children,” then — no exaggeration — “we don’t have any rights at all.” That is really the crux of his argument, which deserves analysis. But the specific context for the argument, from which he gets the title of his post, is the recent and tragic death of a 14 year old homeschooled boy, Teddy Foltz-Tedesco.
I would like to look at Teddy’s death first.
Teddy’s death, caused by horrific child abuse, should bring all conversation about homeschooling and parental rights — really, any and every political conversation — to a halt. The kid, only 14 years old, was beaten until he was unconscious by his mom’s boyfriend. He was not taken to a hospital until hours after the fact. Five days later, after suffering internal bleeding and brain contusions, he died.
But that was the end of the story, not the beginning. I will let Homeschooling’s Invisible Children explain what happened prior:
The abuse started three year prior, when Bush started dating Widdersheim. The family became increasingly isolated, and Teddy’s father did not see him after his tenth birthday. Two years before Teddy’s death a grandmother tried to intervene in the family, but Widdersheim refused to believe her children. Friends and neighbors contacted social services, but after teachers at Teddy’s school started an inquiry with the Ohio children’s services agency, Widdersheim withdrew her children from public school to homeschool them.
Too many people failed this kid. His own mother, his siblings, friends and neighbors, social services. People who could have acted, should have acted, did not. People who tried to act should have tried harder. Policies in place to protect kids like Teddy failed. Services we pay for to keep this from happening did nothing to stop it. It makes me nauseous. I’m not a libertarian and I’m not an authoritarian, but moments like these make me want to be both: I want to punch the walls of the entire child protective system in a blind rage because they had laws and money but they did not save this boy! and I want to ban everyone from ever being parents because if we can’t stop kids from dying let’s just take all the kids away from parents!
But neither the complete absence of laws nor passing every law ever will make each and every kid safe.
That’s the maddening factuality of politics’ limitations.
But that does not mean we should stop trying to make better policies. That does not mean we burn homeschooling to the ground or give parents free rein to do whatever the hell they want to their kids.
And most of all, that does not mean it is compassionate or right to encourage others to harass people trying to make the world a better place, even when those people are misguided. Yet that’s exactly what HSLDA and Matt Walsh did.
See, after Teddy’s death, his birth father and other family members began pressing for legal reform in an attempt to spare other kids from Teddy’s fate. His birth father and other family members approached Ohio state senator Capri Cafaro, the result of which was the proposed S.B. 248. The bill (which was later withdrawn) would have required all homeschooling parents to undergo an annual interview with social services before homeschooling.
This proposal was, in my opinion, doomed to fail at the start, not to mention misguided. (Ironically, it was also the first piece of legislation that the newly-launched Coalition for Responsible Home Education took a position on, and even CRHE opposed it.) But HSLDA quickly spun it as — and I quote — the “Worst-Ever Homeschool Law.”
Yes, the “Worst-Ever Homeschool Law.”
HSLDA knows their followers. They know how they respond to such rhetoric. They know their followers will flood social media and rant and rave and bully Facebook pages to no end, just like they did the German Embassy’s Facebook page for over a month, calling people Nazis and tyrants and other colorful phrases.
And then along comes Matt Walsh, saying Senator Cafaro was — and I quote — “repulsively exploiting the child abuse death of a 14 year old kid,” despite the fact that the Senator only proposed that bill because of the prompting of that kid’s father.
But, you know, facts get in the way of hyperbole, don’t they?
Walsh wouldn’t get nearly as many blog hits if he didn’t exaggerate. HSLDA wouldn’t get nearly as much dedicated fervor from their audience if they didn’t say the bill was basically the Second Coming of Hitler. (Which makes one wonder, who is really exploiting Teddy’s death here?)
So of course inspired by both HSLDA and Walsh, angry homeschool parents flooded the Facebook page dedicated to Teddy’s death and run by his father. Teddy’s remaining family were berated and harassed for days. It was, in my opinion, a real low for the homeschool movement: a mob of people verbally abusing a grieving parent who lost his son, all in the name of “parental rights.”
But it wasn’t just sad. It was aggravating. Because there are real issues here. There are issues that demand a serious, sober debate — between legislators, child protective services, and homeschool advocates. There are heartbreaking failings that demand self-reflection within homeschooling communities about how to protect the communities’ kids from parents who misuse homeschooling.
But we don’t get any of that.
We get Walsh’s hyperbole and HSLDA’s spin.
Which means we don’t get better laws. We don’t get self-reflection. And we don’t get safer kids.
But Walsh gets more blog hits and HSLDA gets more members.
Wash, rinse, repeat.
Homeschooling leaders and advocates can do better than this. We can do better than this.
No kids are saved while homeschooling leaders are off tilting after windmills of persecution. No progress is made — towards either safety of kids or freedom of education — when we cast our movement in Manichaean colors.
Matt Walsh: no one wants to treat all homeschool parents like felony child abusers. No one. No one thinks all homeschool parents are “dangerous terrorists.” No one. Not even us here at Homeschoolers Anonymous, who are apparently now “whistleblowers documenting the horrific secrets of the fundamentalist homeschooling movement.” Yes, not even us whistleblowers of horrific secrets, who blog daily about homeschool abuse, think all homeschool parents are or should be treated like terrorists or child abusers. You are vainly slapping the face of straw men. You have an entire field full of straw men. You are running around with a pitchfork and screaming at figments of your imagination.
Let’s look at the facts calmly, please?
The facts are, parents do not have “the unquestioned and absolute right to teach and raise our own children.” No. Never. This is good. This is how it should be. In refutation of this sentence of Matt Walsh’s from his post’s second paragraph, I would simply present this later sentence from — you guessed it — Matt Walsh:
You should be able to lose your claim over your child if you are truly abusive, or if you commit any felony crime that would put you in prison and require your kids to be cared for by someone else.
This is pretty simple, really: if you should lose your claim over your child if you are abusive (or for any other reason), then your right to teach or raise your own children is not “unquestioned and absolute.” So Walsh really does not mean half of what he says, or he simply ignores how he contradicts himself. There should be limits on parental rights. The state should have power over your children that supersedes your own.
To some extent.
We are ultimately arguing what the extent to which we should apply the principle; we are not actually arguing about the principle. Walsh confuses these two things. You cannot say “this right should be absolute unless.” If there is even one “unless,” then the right is — by definition — questioned and conditional, not unquestioned and absolute.
Walsh might want fewer restrictions on parents than Teddy’s dad might want, or the NEA might want, or members of the responsible homeschooling movement — myself included — might want. But all of us, Walsh included, believe we need to protect kids. We need to question parents’ right to teach and raise their own children when those parents teach and raise their children to believe God wants them raped and impregnated due to an impending Armageddon. We need to make conditional parents’ right to teach and raise their own children when those parents beat their kids to death in the name of righteousness.
People who believe “parental rights” should not be an excuse to rape and murder your kids are not “lunatics,” as Walsh might have you believe. They are not people who — again, a bizarre tangent on Walsh’s part — think “a person’s only fundamental parental right is to butcher their children.” The desire to protect children from abuse is a highly ecumenical one, transcending people’s beliefs about abortion.
So how about we not talk about everything as hyperbolically as possible?
We could sit down in person over a cup of coffee, or write reasonable blog posts with intelligent rhetoric, where we sift through the issues at hand. Issues that could literally mean the life or death of other homeschooled kids — or public school kids, even. We can have big conversations: about how to improve child protective services, how to help out parents trying to educate their children in safe and nurturing environments, how to assist public school teachers raise achievement for all groups of kids, and how to counter child abuse in any and every context.
By all means, let’s indict sexually abusive teachers in public schools. Let’s indict abusive teachers in public schools, private schools, home schools — even colleges. Let’s join with people like Boz Tchividjian and fight abuse in churches; let’s call out and bring to justice the Jerry Sanduskys in secular institutions, too.
But we’re not going to do that with hyperbole. We’re going to do that with well-vetted policies, dedicated parents, outspoken child advocates, and an endless supply of compassion for survivors and support for those fighting for them.
Let me put it another way:
The time for hyperbole in the homeschooling movement is over. It is time for productive discourse and action.