Author note: Arielle was homeschooled K-12 and is currently a graduate student studying U.S. history.
No matter where in the world I am, I chat weekly with my mom, who homeschooled me for thirteen years and did a swell job. We both love stories, wordplay, and discovering what makes people tick. Thanks to the magic of the silicon chip, we bat ideas back and forth across thousands of miles, across oceans and borders.
As she often does, Mom recently shared with me something she’d read: an article that argued humans have a hard time processing competing narratives. We talked about how this jibes with what we’ve observed — how it applies to politics, media, personal experiences. We discussed how cognitive dissonance hurts, threatening our fixed realities, but also reveals complex truths.
After the conversation ended, I kept thinking. I thought about how my mom and I are kindred intellectual spirits, despite our differences. I thought about how glad I am that she spearheaded my K-12 education. I thought about how that article she shared was right; how narratives really do clash in the news, in my dissertation, in everyday interactions; how people struggle to reconcile those narratives, often refusing to do so, even if they’re not mutually exclusive.
Then it hit me: This concept of competing narratives, and of people balking at their coexistence, applies to today’s nationwide conversation about homeschooling.
Many “moderate” homeschoolers like my mom and me — those focused on academics, not ideology — lived an upbeat narrative of educational pioneering, with innovation and inquiry and open horizons. It was imperfect, but all in all, it was exciting and often vindicating. When we encounter the growing narrative about homeschooling’s dark side, mental turmoil ensues.
Sometimes that turmoil is just dismay at bad publicity, compounding the defensiveness that homeschoolers often feel: We have to prove we’re normal, successful, not a stereotype. Frequently, though, it’s true cognitive dissonance. If we’ve only seen hints of homeschooling’s dark side, or have sidestepped it entirely, we really are facing a foreign narrative and struggling to fit it with the story we lived. As homeschooling grows and diversifies, it’s even easier for today’s moderates to form like-minded communities, to chat online about learning styles and college scholarships, gather locally for field trips and science labs. It’s thus that much harder for them to accept the darker narrative.
So we moderates — parents, students, graduates — tell ourselves that this “dark side” comprises bad apples who’d have hurt their kids anyway, homeschooled or not. Or we tell ourselves that it’s a few fringe cults. Or we tell ourselves that homeschooling has changed, that the dark narrative only describes the past. We’ll do anything to escape the dissonance.
Deep down, though, I think most moderates — even in today’s factionalized world —know that the dark narrative is real, substantial, and present-tense.
We see the extreme speakers at statewide conventions, the harsh corporal punishment manuals at curriculum fairs, the leading homeschool lobbyists who make children their political soldiers, the neighbor who’s shaky on math but firm on religious or anti-establishment dogma. We read stories of trauma on ex-homeschooler blogs, even if that means skimming for a minute and leaving a “we’re not like that!” comment and hastily clicking away. We recognize that not all homeschooling parents prepare or care to teach academics, that some homeschool subcultures draw well-meaning newcomers into dangerous beliefs and behaviors.
I know the dark side of homeschooling is real because I glimpsed it growing up, and because some of my friends lived it. I’ve reconciled myself to the clash between their stories and mine. I remember the immense power over my future that my parents gained when they chose to homeschool; I know how lucky I am that they used it well; I can imagine what it would have been like if they hadn’t. But without concrete knowledge of homeschooling’s dark side and instinctive empathy for its victims, moderate parents may find it easier to look away, to quiet the cognitive dissonance and insist on the single narrative they know.
I ask them not to do that. I ask you not to do that.
Yes, I’m talking to you, moms and dads on the Well-Trained Mind forums, members of pluralist play groups, high-powered parents who write in the New York Times about your homeschool journeys, throngs of mommy bloggers who make me smile with your familiar accounts of history units and hands-on astronomy. You’re doing what my mom did. You’re doing a good job. You’re on the right track. But your child’s experience and my experience are not as universal as we’d like to think. For the sake of your child’s friends and the children you’ve never met, please come to terms with that sad, messy truth. Recognize that the dark narrative is also real, and then stand up for the vulnerable.
Standing up for the vulnerable means embracing accountability. I know that feels scary in some homeschooling circles, even the moderate ones. I remember sharing that feeling. But the measures that will make a difference are basic. At least one state, Pennsylvania, already has those measures in place, and homeschoolers there are thriving. Please learn more about the policies that reform advocates recommend — and the reasons behind each suggestion — rather than bristling at abstract “government intrusion.” The next time you’re urged to oppose a legal “threat” to homeschooling, please research what it really entails. Weigh the downside of a minor hassle against the upside of saving a child’s life or future.
As a moderate homeschooling parent, you can also effect change through the day-to-day. You can refuse to buy legal insurance from HSLDA, a far-right group that believes children have the same rights as chattel, and urge your friends to do the same. You can organize against the extremists in homeschool leadership, and perhaps assume local leadership yourself so that your sensible voice gets amplified. You can promote responsible homeschooling within your community, share best practices and flag bad ones, intervene when you notice a child is not safe or not learning, model fascination with the world rather than fear of it.
I’ll tell you now, with cross-my-heart honesty, that no one — not even my friends who wear the worst scars — wants to ban homeschooling. I’m confident that no one will try. But if anyone ever does try, I will stand with you and defend homeschooling, tell my positive story, shout from the rooftops about how wonderfully it can succeed. In the same way, I hope you will stand with me and stand up for the victims, for the reality of the uglier stories, for those who lived them and are living them.
Work to destroy that dark narrative, not by dismissing its existence, but by opposing the ideas and structures that allow it to persist.
Moderate parents, think of me as Dickens’ ghost of Christmas future, your own child all grown up. Keep up the good work, keep asking your kids what they’re thinking and feeling about their education, face the hard times with thoughtful humility, and know there’s an excellent chance your children will thank you, just as I thank my mom. Relish the prospect of deep, quirky phone chats fifteen years hence. What’s more, consider how your kids will not only thank you, but also feel immensely proud of you, when they learn you made the world better when you had the chance — that you fought cruelty and extremism, furthered kindness and accountability, and took a stand for their friends and peers who aren’t as lucky as they are.
This is a great post. I’m a new homeschooling parent and this is something that I see more and more online. I’m not very active with the homeschooling community in my area. I tend to believe that most parents who are homeschooling their children are doing it for loving reasons, even those who choose to homeschool for religious reasons, but you are right that too many kids are being allowed to slip through the cracks. Even if their parents love them, that doesn’t always mean that their education or home life is what it should be. Thank you for this!
You’re welcome! Thank you for your comment and kind words. Even if you can speak up here and there (e.g., countering views that are dismissive of problems or wary of oversight, when you encounter them online or in person), I think that makes a huge difference. Best of luck to you and your family on your homeschool journey!
Pennie, I would go further and say that loving home school parents who are also religious are in more danger of a bad outcome than they realize. I love academics, and my home school was excellent in every way (except science, but I was progressive compared to my peers! And we did HAVE science, up to and including anatomy, intro chemistry and astronomy. Still, exceedingly weak on physics, and those subjects I taught did not always have accurate, up to date textbooks). BUT as a devoted Christian, I got pulled way further out into that darkness than I realized. My advice is to get out of all religious home school support groups, and find friends for your children in community sports, arts classes, museum clubs, the Y, anywhere but a religious home school support group. My children, but more importantly, me as a mom, would have been MUCH better off with MUCH less religion!
Thank you for your insight! When veteran parents are self-reflective and reach out to newer parents with their advice, I think it makes a world of difference. All the best to you and your family!
Can anyone tell me, does hslda in Canada have the same ideology as the American hslda? And if so, is there an another option for homeschooling insurance in Canada? TY!
Hi Jess! Thanks for posing this question. From what I hear, some folks involved at the ground level in HSLDA Canada have less extreme views. However, it’s still part of the same overall organization, so unfortunately, dues paid in either the U.S. or Canada will help further the problematic parts of their ideology and remove basic safeguards. So, personally, if I were a Canadian homeschooling parent, I would have an ethical problem joining HSLDA Canada. While I’m not sure if their is an exact equivalent for insurance, local and provincial support groups will offer legal advice and help familiarize you with the requirements in your area. This website seems to have some helpful thoughts: http://naturalparentsnetwork.com/homeschooling-law-canada/
Best of luck with your homeschool journey!
If you and your likes gain hegemony over the discourse, this could be a turning point in European countries like Germany,where homeschooling is banned. What they see there is the HSLDA, the religious nutters, the Pearl style manuals (which are banned in Germany and some other countries). They feel that the US is trying to forcibly export the ugliest parts of their culture, claiming that “homeschooling is a human right” but then wanting to homeschool in order to strip children of all human rights and to better cover up abuse. Mind you: I am not saying that this is all there is about homeschooling, but this is what it is perceived to be. That being said, I do not believe that you will ever dominate the discourse. Pure demographics in the long run: the QF-style homeschoolers are fruitful and you are not (at least not as much). Hopefully sites like this (great site!) help at least a little.
Hi Karin! Those are some interesting and insightful observations. Thanks for sharing them, and thanks for reading. I do think the “moderate” homeschoolers are a large and growing population, and you can find them discoursing aplenty if you know where to look. 🙂 HA necessarily showcases one particular side of the homeschooling world. It’s an all-too-large side — far larger than many moderates would like to believe, and it desperately needs to be dealt with — but, as you say, it’s not the whole story. You’re right, though, that the extremists have managed to become the public face of homeschooling, especially to the outside world. In large part, this is because they view homeschooling as an ideological identity and cause, so they tend to be more organized and vocal than the moderates. I do think this can change, and I hold out hope that more moderates will realize we need to stand up for accountability, for both practical and ethical reasons — before there’s a backlash against all of homeschooling, and before more kids get hurt.
Your point about Germany and similar countries is fascinating, and one that hadn’t occurred to me. Indeed, I think it could be filed under the “ethical reasons” category. By standing up for accountability and moderation, we can not only help vulnerable homeschooled children in the U.S., but also help expand educational options in other countries by showing that homeschooling communities can be open-minded, education-focused, and affirming of children’s rights.
As for demographics, that’s a point well-taken — moderates don’t tend to have as large families. I myself have only one sibling. However, homeschooling is not a closed community or hereditary status; increasingly, people who would not have homeschooled before are choosing to homeschool for non-ideological, academics-focused reasons. At the same time, I think HA goes to show that the quiverfull approach can backfire, with many children of such families growing up to have very different beliefs and seeking to reform the harmful aspects of the homeschooling subcultures they experienced. As these individuals speak out and as more moderates stand up for accountability, I’m optimistic that the harmful homeschooling subcultures can change (or at least shrink considerably and be tempered by more external safeguards), and fewer families will get sucked into the quiverfull lifestyle. This is not an inevitable or already-accomplished process, as some moderates like to claim; it will take work, and continued speaking out, and more people choosing to do the right thing rather than looking away. But I think it can happen and is already beginning to happen.
You make excellent points, Arielle. As an unschooler, I used to feel very leery about the idea of increased oversight, because my belief in child-directed learning seemed so at-odds with the prevailing ideas about education. But after a long dialog at No Longer Quivering, and much thought, I’m starting to realize that unschoolers will likely do just fine with increased oversight.
My older daughter started public school last fall at age 13 (her choice), after unschooling up until then — and she now has a 3.7 GPA, and, for the second semester, was actually ranked 3rd in her class of 93 8th graders.
While I’d known that unschooling was excellent preparation for the real world, I’d been worried that being free to follow her own interests would make it harder for her to keep up with her peers in a conventional setting. I obviously needn’t have worried! And I agree that we need to do everything we can to ensure the freedom and safety of all children, even if it means we have to cope with a few minor inconveniences!
Your comment makes me really happy, Susan. I’m thrilled to hear that your daughter is thriving and has agency in her education. It sounds like homeschooling prepared her well for the next phase! I’m so encouraged when responsible homeschooling parents let go of that initially-understandable wariness or defensiveness, coming to understand that they’re not personally being threatened but are in an excellent position to help homeschooled kids who are falling through the cracks. (My mom has made a similar shift.) Being open to reevaluating your views and changing your mind, upon encountering new ideas and information, is also a wonderful trait to model for your daughter. 🙂 Best wishes!
Arielle, I guess I am trying to read between the lines to understand EXACTLY what you mean by the dark side. Do you mean children who are basically being abused, exploited, overly sheltered, etc?
I read your quote: “Yes, I’m talking to you, moms and dads on the Well-Trained Mind forums, members of pluralist play groups, high-powered parents who write in the New York Times about your homeschool journeys, throngs of mommy bloggers who make me smile with your familiar accounts of history units and hands-on astronomy. You’re doing what my mom did. You’re doing a good job. You’re on the right track.” I don’t do any of these things. We are not hard core unschoolers, in that we do do some book work, but I just don’t relate to that sort of homeschooling that you describe above. So am I on the dark side? I feel like you are trying to say something without quite saying it.
Hi, Jenny. Yes, by “dark side,” I mean exactly the things you list — abuse, exploitation, isolation — as well as educational deprivation/neglect. I’m not sure if you’ve browsed this website yet, but you’ll see many posts describing the dark side here on Homeschoolers Anonymous, unfortunately.
As for the quote you excerpted, fear not, I definitely didn’t mean that as an exhaustive list of people who homeschool well. 🙂 Basically, I was trying to single out and address directly some of the most prominent voices (particularly online voices) of moderate/positive homeschooling — folks who represent their brand of homeschooling very well, and can often provide wonderful support to fellow parents with similar goals and approaches, but who can also be dismissive of the fact that others homeschool in harmful ways
If you felt like there was something I was skirting or leaving intentionally vague, perhaps you were picking up on the fact that I was trying not to single out religious homeschoolers, though most of the stories of harmful homeschooling you’ll read on HA took place in religious homeschooling environments. I do think a lot of the “dark side” is intertwined with extreme religious ideologies, but I didn’t want to alienate more moderate and responsible homeschoolers who happen to be religious — I’ve met many families who fit this description — and I didn’t want to make it sound like non-religious homeschoolers are immune to the problems you listed (or immune from extreme ideologies), since they aren’t.
As for your own homeschooling, it sounds like you’re embracing a method similar to the one my family used. I’m actually working on a post for the Coalition for Responsible Home Education (responsiblehomeschooling.org) about my experience, in which I quote my mom describing us as “unschooler wannabes” who followed the motto “cover the basics, pursue your passions.” It should be out some time this summer – you may resonate to it or find it helpful. Best of luck! 🙂
Arielle, thank you for your response. This does clarify things for me. I guess as parents we are always worried that we are doing right by our children so your article had me questioning myself and our family dynamic. I struggle with depression and lack of motivation to do anything with the kids, but I know they are learning stuff. I mean, how can you not learn, right? We are going through a bit of a hard time where they are questioning a lot about friends and homeschooling and if they want to go to school, and I sometimes wish I gave them more structure and worked harder to make certain social opportunities available, so that they wouldn’t think that school will solve all their problems. I thought that maybe moms like me who lay on the couch for the better part of some days and have a week out of the month where everything makes them cry were on the “dark side”. My kids know they are loved and we have great discussions and occasionally, adventures :), so I’m not too worried, but for a second there I felt like maybe I was an “irresponsible homeschooler”.
Jenny, I am very sorry you are going through a difficult time and having those mental health struggles. It sounds like you are a loving mom who wants what is best for her kids, and I think all homeschooling parents have “off” days. Again, I don’t think you are on any “dark side.” 🙂 However, based on what you share, I would like to gently urge you to work with your kids to fulfill some of the needs they are saying they have. (It’s wonderful that they are comfortable expressing those critiques to you.) That doesn’t necessarily mean stopping homeschooling, but perhaps there is a nearby homeschool co-op in which they could participate, a local sports team, a nearby school or community center that would let them take some classes? You can research these options, or if the kids are old enough, you could let them research nearby activities/classes and present their specific requests and ideas to you. As you know, even unschooling as a method *does* require planning and motivation– providing the resources and opportunities, both inside and outside of the home, for kids to pursue their current passions and explore new ones — and I do think my mom’s “cover the basics” addendum was important. She did have us regularly tested just to make sure we were on track, which is something I’d also encourage you to do with your kids if you haven’t yet.
And if it’s still not working for you and your family — if homeschooling is making you *and* your kids miserable — would it really be so bad to try something else for a while? One of the common themes among homeschool alumni with positive experiences, like me, is that our parents did not view public/private school as evil or “never an option no matter what,” but were just using homeschooling as a tool to fulfill their individual kids’ needs. If that tool is isn’t working right now, why not try a different tool? Another common theme among those of us who enjoyed homeschooling is that our parents *listened* to us and made changes based on the desires and critiques we expressed. If our parents realized their individual kids needed more structure or social interaction or access to resources, they worked with us to make that happen.
Please don’t take this in a spirit of condemnation or judgment, but as friendly feedback intended to make things better for you and your kids. I hope you will take some time to relax this summer, and also to think about a new way forward for this coming school year (if you are on a traditional school-year schedule, that is!). Again, all the best.
Hi Arielle, thanks so much for that. I think I am too hard on myself. The things that you suggest, I do do, thank goodness. And to be honest, I go with their motivation, as well, which fluctuates between mania and lethargy. We do consider school. I do kinda think it’s evil (well, not evil per se, but a waste of time), but we are considering it, or a version of it. Thanks again for your thoughts. I don’t know any grown homeschoolers 🙂
Jenny and other commenters still reading this thread: Here’s the post I wrote for the Coalition for Responsible Home Education describing in detail how my parents homeschooled me. I know this is late, but sharing here just in case any of you might find it helpful. 🙂
Arielle- A BREATH-of-fresh-air, you, are! Thanks so much for, your, insight.
God Bless you.