How Christian Lay Counseling Can Exacerbate Abuse

CC image courtesy of Flickr, Robert.

HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Sarah Henderson’s blog Feminist in Spite of Them. It was originally published on her blog on October 25, 2015.

There is a common occurrence within counseling in fundamentalist churches, in which a lay person, often someone with some experience or some qualifications, but not truly qualified, opens a client-therapist relationship with a fellow church member. Depending on the community, it could be a member of another church, who comes highly recommended by other church community members.

In the case of families with undisclosed or unacknowledged abuse, this situation can be highly damaging. A situation like this occurred within my own family on several separate occasions, with several different people who attempted to perform as lay counselors to my parents.

In the first situation, the lay counselor, a woman whose education was in nursing, and whose experience was working with teenage mothers, attempted to work with my father as a lay counselor. This was after I had moved out, at 17, which bizarrely, after many years of involvement with that church, was the first sign the church noticed that there was a problem in my home. When the church began to acknowledge that there was a problem, they recommended that my father see her for counseling. She tried to work with him by setting some proposed limits on his abusive behaviour. To my knowledge she never reported his abuse, although she was aware of it. She didn’t experience much success with him, and when he eventually left the family home (he was convicted of three counts of child abuse in a plea bargain) and was no longer open to seeing her, she moved on to act as a counselor to my mother. My mother was also abusive (although not to the same degree as my father) and neglectful, and this woman was aware of this but to my knowledge did not report it.

I can state that she was aware of my mother’s abuse and neglect because I had knowledge of her attempts to help my mother change her behaviour.

She made repeated attempts to help my mother by helping her clean up the house, which was extremely unhygienic. This was a highly unsuccessful venture. The house would simply become extremely unhygienic again, shockingly quickly. My father had maintained a high degree of control over the day to day running of the house, and without him there, my mother was not forced to keep the house clean and was not motivated to do it, on her own, or for the sake of her children who were living there. When trying to help my mother keep the house clean did not work, and trying to teach her to keep the house clean did not work, this woman turned to the children. I was not living at the house for most of this, but after my father was no longer living there I spent time there frequently (eventually I returned to live in the house for another year). During this time this woman also became friends with my mother, and it always remained unclear what part of her involvement was due to the friendship and what part was considered lay counseling.

She started out by requiring the children who remained in the home to clean the house with her. When this had no lasting impact on the state of the house, things became more tense. She had originally tried to help my mother mend her abusive and neglectful behaviour, but the tension in the house continued to increase. My siblings and I had placed the blame for all the abuse and neglect at my father’s feet, in court, since he was the more abusive parent. However, this came with the expectation that when given a chance, my mother would be a better parent. This didn’t work out, as she continued to spiral out of control. While I have empathy for her position as a fellow victim as well as an abuser, she continued to spiral for several years, at the expense of the quality of life of my siblings.

My siblings and I became frustrated with her inability to take over responsibility for the running of her home. She couldn’t coordinate comings and goings, budgeting, meal planning, household hygiene and food safety, and she wasn’t able to parent her children.

The lay counselor attempted to change tack again and be a family counselor for the whole family. However, she had gotten to know my mother quite well, and for whatever reason, was convinced that my mother was being re-victimized by her children. At that point the 9 children ranged in age from 20 to 5. Other people from my mother’s church got involved in the lay counseling as well, and the original lay counselor became less involved. My siblings and I, not months after sitting in court telling our story of abuse, were told by the church and the religious lay counselors they brought into our lives, that our mother would be a better mother, if only we were better children.

The older children were accused of usurping the parent role, for parenting the younger children when my mother failed to do so.

Our offence lay in helping them get through their daily lives, insisting on a certain level of behaviour, routine, and hygiene. These people enabled my mother to continue a highly dependent lifestyle, simply substituting church community figures to submit to, instead of my father. As these people remained in denial of the abuse and neglect that occurred, their input into our lives was heavily centred on how to make my mother’s life better, sprinkled with advice regarding continuing to respect our father. My mother depended on the lay counselors for advice and financial assistance and parenting, to minutiae. My siblings and I repeatedly requested that the church and lay counselors become less involved but that was treated as a disrespectful and ludicrous suggestion. It also seemed to us that the lack of success caused emotional distress to those involved, and that their efforts became more about experiencing the gratification of achieving some recognizable success, than it was about actually helping anyone involved.

There was another woman, also loosely affiliated with the church, became involved in the lay counseling in a scenario that was almost a perfect replica of the situation I just outlined, except that she was never involved with my father, and she was a counseling student with a Christian distance education program, and claimed that my mother was her senior project, apparently filling out reports on her work with my mother. They also claimed a friendship, and that situation also evolved into her coming into the home and claiming that my mother would have been a better mother if my siblings were better children. She took part in trying to clean the house, but again to my knowledge, never reported the abuse and neglect she observed there.

In the third situation, a pastor of a church that was loosely affiliated with our church, worked as a counselor. My understanding is that unlike the first lay counselors in this post, he had some education and some standards for his work, including confining his counseling to his church office rather than entering the home. It started out quite similarly to the first situation, with the counselor coming highly recommended. He also heavily relied on religious materials and ideology in his work, which was to be expected. He also experienced no success in counseling my father, and also had a failed attempt to do to marriage counseling with both my parents. To the best of my knowledge, he was also made fully aware of the abuse and never reported it. In my parents’ marriage counseling, as described to me by my mother, he did emphasize that my father should treat my mother better, but he was always oriented towards full reconciliation as the goal, rather than on changed attitudes and behaviours as the goal in a situation where there was significant abuse and neglect.

When this counselor experienced complete failure in facilitating reconciliation, he moved on to trying to counsel some of my siblings. However, he actually brought my parents’ files with him to those counseling sessions and relied on them to inform of him of the presenting issues for my siblings, rather than allowing them to present their concerns to him directly. His counseling sessions with my siblings were prematurely broken off as well, and my siblings expressed dissatisfaction with their sessions with him. All of these failures were openly understood by our church to be based in some moral deficit on the part of my family members, which only added to the othering that my family faced at the hands of the church.

I have referenced the Canadian Association of Social Workers “Guidelines for Ethical Practice”, to explain the problems that happened in those three scenarios. I chose a social work code of ethics because that is my educational background, and also because even though those three lay counselors were not responsible to any association in their role as lay counselors, I feel that is still reasonable to look to a code of ethical behaviour when discussing their actions in a position of power, that affected my minor aged siblings.

On page 8 of the PDF in the above link, 1.6.1 states that those who are aware of child abuse and/or neglect, need to report this to the proper authorities. There is no evidence that any of those lay counselors ever made a child protection report, and certainly none of them claim to do have done so. Items 2.1.1, 2.3.1, and 2.3.3 outline the responsibility of a social worker to look out for the well-being of vulnerable persons, in this case my siblings, and to take care in situations involving clients who are related to each other, and when personal friendships are involved.

As I outlined above, there were personal relationships between my mother and the lay counselors who later moved on to try to counsel my siblings without their consent, with the counseling largely revolving around asking my siblings to be better children if they wished to be better taken care of. Having a child go to therapy with a counselor who is so enmeshed with the parents places the child at a distinct disadvantage. For example in these cases, any words against the parents were directly reported back to my mother, for her to deal with as she wished. Also, after several months of involvement and awareness of the abuse at play, there was no hope from my siblings that these people would report the abuse and neglect, so these counseling sessions were really just scolding sessions where the lay counselor informed my siblings of their shortcomings.

This is not to be a generalized statement against lay counseling, and surely some lay counselors must be able to provide counseling among family members without this kind of harm being done. But the lack of protection for children in such situations is deplorable and should be shocking. When lay counselors are recommended to families in distress, they should be held to some kind of standard and care should be taken not to harm children in the process – which shouldn’t even need to be said! but clearly it needs to be.

There is no escape or protection for a homeschooled, isolated child who is put in contact with an incompetent lay counselor, with the full knowledge and agreement of the church.

My Body Took My Soul’s Pain: Bailey

My Body Took My Soul’s Pain: Bailey

Follow Bailey on Twitter or read what she calls her “weird blog,” which is “half about finding truth, half about television, and half about arachnophobia. (It’s mostly not about math.)”

Trigger warning: self-injury.

The Triggers

It started small when I was small—still in the single digits, probably. Huddled in my room after facing my parents’ wrath, I would curl up in a corner and scratch hateful messages into my legs. “Stupid,” I would write, and “bad.”

It hurt, sure, but I felt less guilt over my stupidness and less shame over my badness after I’d punished myself. “You’re not stupid or bad anymore,” I would reassure myself afterwards. “It’s over now.”

When the hell of adolescence struck, I was overwhelmed constantly. Take a sensitive nature, put it in a volatile home situation, and add the chaos of hormones, and it just seemed impossible to find any emotional or mental balance. I felt stupid and bad all the time—not just when mom and dad yelled. (Although I didn’t know it at the time, it was the first of many periods of clinical depression.)

Most of the time, my parents were really quite loving. But they were also strict. For instance, they required immediate, unquestioning, cheerful obedience. But what if I had a deep sadness or a burning question?! I could never comply to their satisfaction, and they said that meant rebellion. I didn’t feel rebellious, and yet I couldn’t stop rebelling! I deserved their yelling. Clearly, I was just a failure at the pursuit of piety. And that was the worst imaginable failure. Failing my parents meant failing God, so their displeasure represented his. 

Shame characterized the core of my being. My parents said they loved me unconditionally, but it seemed like their love stopped whenever I displeased them. If they didn’t restore their love, then I had to do something drastic to restore order. If I was bad, I deserved a punishment; if I received a punishment, then I would be absolved—on some grand karmic level, if not in my parent’s eyes. After the punishment, I could feel like I deserved love, even if I didn’t receive it. I had paid the price to absolve my sin, so the weight of my sin felt lifted.

Obviously, I misunderstood God and his grace. I also read my parents unfairly; they still loved me, they just didn’t show it in a way that I understood. They’d been conditioned by the homeschool culture to show displeasure towards any failure-to-be-holy. Otherwise, they’d be letting my sins slide, and then they’d be bad parents who were letting their child’s soul go to hell!

They loved me, so they didn’t want me to go to hell. They believed—because they had been told—that it was their spiritual responsibility to mold me, which meant insisting on a narrow definition of behavior. Unfortunately, that sometimes played out as refusing to show grace toward human imperfections. To a kid, that means conditional love. And that means shame, guilt, self-doubt, and fear.

Even apart from my parents, life wasn’t a walk in the park. Being a teenager just plain sucks. But I never fought back against any of these forces. I internalized everything until I was so full of bad emotions—general anguish, hatred toward myself, and anger toward the world—that I felt insane. 

I was desperate to release those feelings, but it had to be private; I didn’t want to get in any more trouble, and I didn’t want to be like my parents, who took their emotions out on me and my siblings. So I did what seemed, at the time, like a great idea. I focused on myself, to protect everyone around me. I punished myself to release my guilt. In my mind, I was even defending myself from my parents: “This is what you’re doing to my soul,” I whispered. “So, fine, I’ll do it to my body. If I deserve it, I’ll take it.”

Self-injury transferred my soul’s pain to my body, and I found the physical pain infinitely more bearable. It distracted me from the terror of the moment, a change that allowed the possibility of quietness and peace. I assured myself that sensations existed other than mental torment. I craved the endorphins.

And I wore long sleeves and pants, claiming chronic coldness even in hot summers.

The Transition

Everything worsened in college. My parents panicked about letting me grow up and hence became stricter, angrier, louder. Now that I saw the whole world, I wanted to find my own place in it, which meant leaving behind their careful plans. I think this frightened them, which angered them, which frightened me, which angered me. They divided our phone calls between friendly chats and harsh condemnations.

I was furious with them, and I didn’t want to be like them. I knew, on some level, that they loved me and wanted the best for me, even if they didn’t know how to give it to me. I knew they were scared and worried, and their feelings of terror and rage had to go somewhere. (That was a situation I deeply understood.) They chose their target: me. Perhaps in a warped domestic version of Stockholm syndrome, I chose the same target. Me.

Eventually, people found out, which was the thing I least wanted. I was sent to a therapist, which was the thing I most needed. I was surrounded by loving friends and wise counselors, fortunately, and they worked hard to help me. I’m eternally grateful.

But I fought with my therapist, arguing that my coping mechanism didn’t hurt anyone else and didn’t cause permanent damage. Why was my choice irrational and unhealthy, but it’s fine for parents to crush their children’s souls?  Plus, what the hell should I do instead? 

I ranted and raged because I felt hopeless. Of course I knew that hurting myself was a foolish thing to do, and ultimately unhelpful, but it was all I knew. It didn’t even matter whether I wanted to get better, wanted to give it up; I simply couldn’t. What would take its place? Terror? Insanity? A homicidal rampage? It was the only way I could control my frantic world.

I acted angry, but I secretly longed for an escape, for any other coping method that might actually work. I just didn’t believe, for a long time, that one existed.

Of course, there wasn’t a magic solution or a silver bullet. Truly changing yourself takes time. Slowly, I let go of my twisted habit—not because I solved the riddle, but because I built a support system and began accepting myself. As I matured, I focused on the things I loved, instead of my parents’ criticisms. I let myself explore my own ideas and believe my own beliefs; I gave myself freedom to be uncertain, to be open-minded, to be a work in progress. I married a man who liked me exactly as I was, and I let the strong, stable truth of his love overcome my self-doubt. I allowed myself to think I might be worthwhile. I let myself be both happy and flawed.

Most of all, I realized that I’m not powerless. I self-injured because I thought it was my only option; I couldn’t control anything in the world except my own body. I still can’t control most things, but I can be a force for good. When you are loved, then you have a radical power to affect the lives of those who love you. You can turn inward, focusing on your own misery, or you can turn to others for both solace and purpose. Even if you’re not strong, you always have the power to help others.

The Truth

I still think about cutting almost every day, but it’s different. Before, no one knew, and no one saw, and I felt better afterwards. Back then, in the worst-case scenario, my parents would have found out; that would have been (well, was) terrifying for me, but it was also terrible for them, which met some tiny sense of justice.

But if I hurt myself now, my husband would find the marks, and he doesn’t deserve it. I would feel guilty for making him sad—and “more guilt” was never the goal. It would also hinder our fantastic sex life, because I’d be afraid to get naked. (At the beginning of our marriage, before I figured out these things, I would sometimes go a month without taking my shirt off. That’s not a great way to celebrate newlywed bliss.)

And most of all, there’s darling Madeleine. Of course having a kid changes your lifestyle, but it’s also a game-changer for the soul. My entire heart aches to protect her from pain. I treat her with respect, and I glory in my power to build up her self-esteem, but my control ends there. Life hurts, at times, and the world is cruel. And poor Maddie is just as sensitive as her mother. Even if I never yell at her, she will face trials, and she will struggle to respond.

When I first got pregnant, I pledged that I would be a kind mother—at any cost. I know I would experience frustration, fatigue, and helplessness, as all mothers do, but I would not take it out on Madeleine. Yes, I actually planned to deal with these things through self-injury. Better hurt me than hurt her, I figured. She would never see, and she’d never know.

But I’m realizing, as Madeleine grows older, that I missed the real issue. It’s not what I successfully hide from her; it’s what I fail to show her. Things like modeling healthy coping mechanisms. Like responding to life’s challenges with flexibility and strength. Like acknowledging the stress and insanity of life, and admitting it hurts like hell and that’s ok, and then proving that it doesn’t have to beat you.

She should never feel that gut-wrenching sense that she can never make it, never satisfy, never be good enough. As a kid, I always felt on edge, knowing every moment that I was forgetting something, ruining something, or failing something. I think most women feel like this for most of their lives. But I want the opposite for Madeleine; I want her to know that she’s imperfect, to feel at peace with that knowledge, and to know that she’s valuable anyway.

But I can’t raise her in an environment of peace while letting myself live in an environment of anxiety.

Hiding my bad coping strategies isn’t enough. I need to find, test, practice, and then pass on some equally realistic but tremendously smarter strategies. If Madeleine sees me facing pressure and responding purposefully—with healthy methods and, ultimately, with grace—then maybe she’ll never feel so desperate. Maybe, as she observes my strength of soul and develops her own, she’ll decide that she can handle anything.

And if I can empower others like that, then I’m definitely not powerless. Definitely not stupid. Definitely not bad.

This One’s For The Homeschool Moms: Mercy’s Story

HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Mercy” is a pseudonym. 

Homeschool Moms (Present, Past, and Future), this post is for you.

"Be strong and call it like it is."
“Be strong and call it like it is.”

I’ve thought a lot about how conservative, Christian (in my case, not fundamentalist) homeschooling has shaped my life, but it wasn’t until last year that I took the time to think about how it impacted my mother. My sister had just called home to tell me that her and her husband of a short time were divorcing. I broke the news to my mom before my sister did, to soften the blow a little bit. My mom’s face went grey and she said, “How could this happen to your sister? I did everything right.” There was little consoling her, she thought that she had failed as a parent.

Why would the divorce of a child who married at a young age, in a country with a high divorce rate come as such a shock to a parent? Because the homeschool movement told my mom that they had given her the magic formula to make her children’s lives perfect. They give her a list, and promised her that if she followed the rules that her children would be perfect, Godly, and never experience life’s pain. How could that not be a tempting promise to any parent who cares about their children?

Homeschool moms, I want to tell you that promise is false, and that believing it is going to hurt you. Your child is a sovereign individual, and no matter how carefully and lovingly you arrange every part of their upbringing, education, and socialization, you cannot control their future. You can’t control it because you don’t have total control over your child or other people. If you’re stressing yourself out, afraid you’re doing it wrong, and a constant bundle of nerves, I want you to take a moment and think about whether or not you have set unrealistic expectations for yourself as a parent, and your child as a child. You probably have, and I want to tell you to give yourself a break.

Also, a lot of you have commented on these posts explaining that you’re different from the “crazy” homeschool moms, and I do believe you, but chances are if you’re Christian and homeschooling, you and your kids will be interacting with fundamentalists and you may be gradually sucked into parts or the whole of their ideology over time. These are some warning signs that could cause you to be more susceptible or signal that you’re already being sucked in:

1. You have deep regrets about your past. Perhaps you were raised non-religious like my mother, and then converted later in life, causing you to view your earlier years as sin-filled and in need of atonement. Maybe you were raised in a religious home and just think that you made some stupid, sinful decisions. Either way, if you are feeling guilt about your past, and like you need to make up for it, I want to tell you that homeschooling perfectly isn’t the solution. Don’t let people lead you into thinking that this is your path to forgiveness and the way to prove that you have become good. Additionally, many homeschool conventions, talks, gatherings will involve long lectures and speeches about the evils that your kids are supposed to avoid and that are taking over America (divorce, abortion, pre-martial sex, drinking, drugs, etc…). If these are things in your past, that you have regrets about, I want you to step out of those talks and lectures and stop punishing yourself. By sitting through those demonizing speeches you are tearing yourself down emotionally. You’re forgiven, now move on.

2. You find yourself becoming increasingly judgmental of other’s “walk with God” and parenting choices. Perhaps you were always fairly even keel, easy to get along with, not too judgmental, etc… and then lately you’ve noticed just how few people seem to truly be Christians, and how other parents are not really raising their kids to be Godly enough. Stop right there. You are treading into dangerous water. I remember there was a stage in my mother’s homeschooling where she felt that she was dressing more modestly, using more Christian curriculum, and going to a Godlier church than most other people. My dad sat her down one day and said, “Do you remember where you came from? You look at everyone and judge them, like you’ve forgotten that you’re human, too.” Was my dad harsh? Yes, but it opened up my mom’s eyes to the fact that she, a woman who had always been a fair-minded free spirit, was becoming fundamentalist. My mom dumped her jumpers and added a good dose of charity and compassion to her assessment of other’s (including her children), and her assessment of herself.

3. You find other homeschool moms criticizing you and your children, as “sisters in Christ.” It feels like they’re just being mean, but everyone says that they’re being Godly… True story, they’re probably just being mean. If you are a more relaxed, liberal homeschooler, and you are involved in homeschool activities where you are around fundamentalist homeschoolers, they will judge you and your children. Other homeschool moms were constantly telling my mother about my “slutty” dressing and “immoral” ways. They sought to demonize me, punish me, and slander me because I was not a cookie-cutter Christian homeschooler. My mother always defended me, but what makes me sad is that she never defended herself. I noticed that the longer we were involved in certain homeschool activities populated by more fundamentalist homeschoolers, the more fragile my mom was becoming. She went from outgoing and smiley, to frighteningly quiet, she stopped telling jokes, she got sick almost every time we went to a homeschool gathering, and her head started shaking. It was like all of her bottled up anxiety and hurt couldn’t be kept in, so a barely perceptible shake would start as soon as we pulled up to a homeschooling event. I found out why my mother was acting this way my senior year of high school: other home school parents were bullying her. I overheard them openly confront her about how prideful, how unloving, how assertive, how terrible, and how unchristian she was. My mom never stood up for herself. To any mom who is being treated this way, and is afraid to stand up to it because you either think that a). you deserve this, or b). what’s being done is Godly I want you to be strong and call it like it is. Some homeschool moms are bitches. If they treat you and your kid terribly, tell them that it’s not Godly. It’s rude, and get out of there.

4. You’re told that the answer to parenting/homeschooling is ________________. There is no perfect way to parent. If you’ve come across a group, speaker, pastor, or curriculum that promises that they have the one and only way to good parenting and God then you know you’ve run into a nut job. They may have great success stories, and a bevy of perfectly mannered children at their beck and call to demonstrate their effectiveness, but you shouldn’t fall for it. There is not one way.

5. You feel like other homeschool families are always so much more perfect. You see these glowing, wholesome families who encourage you to homeschool and sell you curriculum, and then when you start homeschooling your kids don’t magically change. They don’t want to do their school, they fight with each other, they back talk, they may even turn into teenagers. And, you get frustrated, mad, tired, and say mean things. You might look at these other families and ask, “What am I missing?” What you’re missing is the whole picture. No family is perfect, nor are their children. Even the most well-mannered exemplars of homeschooling virtues have kids that misbehave and days where they feel frustrated, too. As you can see from this blog, a lot of these kids that may seem so much more virtuous than yours are actually deeply hurting and will eventually turn their parent’s perfect world upside down. So, be patient with yourself and your children, and don’t let other family’s public veneer make you feel like a bad parent.

And, please, please don’t feel like if you try homeschooling, and hate it, that you’re bad and must work through it. If you really hate it, are unhappy, and struggling, then maybe homeschooling isn’t for you and that is just fine. Keep your options flexible and your mind open. You don’t have to homeschool to have happy, well-educated, respectful kids. Look out for them, and look out for yourself. Don’t let other people force you into any lifestyle or belief system that you feel uncomfortable with, and if you feel as though that might be happening, be strong and get out now.

Generational Observations: Jeri Lofland’s Story, Part One

Generational Observations: Jeri Lofland’s Story, Part One

Jeri’s story was originally published on her blog Heresy in the Heartland. It is reprinted with her permission. The second part of Jeri’s contribution to HA is “Of Isolation and Community.”

Someone asked me about the long-term effects of homeschooling vs. public education, and it got me thinking. I won’t consider secular private education in this article, mostly because I don’t have firsthand experience.  I have enjoyed teaching my young children at home, but we have decided to send them to public school while they are still in the elementary grades because of our observations over a generation of homeschooling.

Effects on Society

Certainly homeschooling promotes elitism. Even without religious motivation, announcing that you can get a better education from your mother than from certified degreed professionals has an air of snobbery. Socially, the kids can hardly escape the inference that they are too good (or smart, or rich) to rub shoulders with the inferior proletariat, especially when they are repeatedly told their home experience is superior. Latin for kindergarteners, anyone?

Public school introduces children to others who are like, yet unlike, them at the same time. It broadens their understanding by allow them to work and play alongside real people of other races, other religions, other languages and backgrounds. When conflicts arise, involved parents have an opportunity to encourage cooperation, sensitivity, and compassion, as well as personal boundaries. My children are learning to respect diversity in a way that would be impossible if they only played with kids from their own neighborhood. And they see that excellence is a personal choice independent of circumstances.

Our public school welcomes parental involvement. Teachers are thrilled to have parents volunteer in the classroom and the principal has always had an open door when I stopped in with a question or concern. When I spend an hour helping my daughter’s classmates practice multiplication, I multiply the teacher’s efforts and support the cause of education far beyond my own children. Our school truly belongs to the community and it is what the community makes it.

Government policies and education budgets now affect my children directly, so I have heightened interest in the issues. I better understand what educators do, helping me relate to a much larger group of society. When teachers and professors in my book club begin to discuss particular stresses on public education, I can participate. Rather than supporting divisions based on class and ideology, I can connect differing perspectives to broaden people’s view of the big picture.

Effects on Students

I maintain that it is neither normal nor traditional for boys to spend their days under the tutelage of their mother after they reach double digits. In the days of the pioneer, a boy might grow up isolated and self-taught. He was prepared to explore the frontier, self-reliant and independent. Those are hardly the skills needed by adults today.

It would be interesting to hear from men how they think homeschooling affected them emotionally. My hunch is that all that time at home with Mom often stunted their decision-making and negotiating skills and either increased their susceptibility to manipulation or their ability to manipulate, or both.

Boys–and girls in contemporary society–need to learn goal-setting and negotiating skills. School exposes them to a range of leadership styles and personalities and varied levels of accountability. It helps them build a portfolio of social skills (and coping mechanisms) that can serve them in the work force when they have to deal with cranky managers, lazy teammates, and charting their own professional course.

Even in modern homeschooling, with its drama groups, advanced math co-op classes, and sports teams, families tend to be overly flexible, to lack commitment to schedules, and to make sacrifices for one child at the expense of the others. In spite of its flaws, the school system does allow for a more level playing field that offers individual choice and rewards accordingly.

Effects on Family Dynamics

Family dynamics are the primary reason I decided against long-term homeschooling. Put simply, my daughter appreciates me much more when she doesn’t have to spend all day with me! Though we spend less time together, we use that time more efficiently, deepening our relationship and helping her develop emotionally and socially. Homeschooling strains the parent-child relationship unnecessarily. It is unfair to a teenager for one or two adults to hold the keys to his education and grades as well as his: social life, access to transportation, food choices, access to employment, daily schedule, recreation, healthcare, and moral guidance. This absolute power tends to corrupt parents, or simply exhaust them.

How many moms have “burned out” on homeschooling, devoting themselves to their children’s needs or success while ignoring their own? If she has her own dreams, the teaching parent may resent the inefficiency of spending so many years as a caregiver and educator for a handful of children, when she could be pursuing a satisfying career while sharing the educational responsibility with professionals who chose the job. The early homeschool movement seems to have coincided with an era when technology and a stronger economy had recently reduced the load on stay-at-home moms. Homeschooling may be a healthy alternative to watching soap operas, but it can be a real financial hardship for some parents–contributing to marriage and family stress.

Adolescence is a time for widened horizons, a time to experiment with choices and learn specific cause-and-effect sequences, with the home as a physical and emotional safety net. When teachers reinforce what parents have been telling their kids, the whole family benefits. Feedback at regular intervals gives kids a chance to test different approaches to learning and meeting goals. When they struggle in one area (academics, social relationships, or family issues, for example), they can lean on other networks for support and hopefully build confidence by succeeding in something else.

As the product of homeschooling, and a homeschooling parent myself, I think the benefits of homeschooling are usually overstated. Certainly religious motivations have driven the movement’s growth, but weighing the social and educational results does not convince me that homeschooling prepares people to better thrive in their society.

Bad, Evil Psychology Helped Me

Crosspost: Bad, Evil Psychology Helped Me

HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Latebloomer’s blog Past Tense Present Progressive. It was originally published on July 7, 2012.

"I've slowly been reconstructing a healthier and more balanced view of myself and others."
“I’ve slowly been reconstructing a healthier and more balanced view of myself and others.”

Growing up, I heard a lot of scoffing at psychology in my family, homeschooling community, and fundamentalist church.  In those circles, the study and application of psychology represented a worthless human attempt to feel happier apart from God and become better without the guidance of the Bible.   The anti-psychology sentiment was so strong that even building kids’ self-confidence and self-esteem was derided as a “worldly” goal.  There was too much “self” in the name.  Real True Christian children were to be obedient and humble instead. 

Looking back, I definitely had the obedience thing handled; in fact, I cannot remember ever purposefully disobeying my parents, even in my teens.  Yet I was constantly reprimanded for unsatisfactory performance because I was unable to be constantly cheerful about the instant unquestioning obedience that was required of me.  The impossibility of my situation left me feeling extremely frustrated and guilty; however, I reasoned that my faults were just a “thorn in my flesh” to keep me humble and seeking God’s help (

2 Cor 12:7).  

But apparently even my humility was a fault; I wasn’t doing that right either.  In my late teens, I heard Reb Bradley‘s teachings about pride at his homeschooling church Hope Chapel.  According to Reb Bradley, true humility was the absence of thought or awareness of yourself.  So those feelings of shame, awkwardness, self-consciousness, and frustration that I dealt with daily?  Sinful pride, not humility.  Talk about kicking a person when they’re down!  My tortured teenage mind twisted itself in knots trying to get out of my body, trying to have no positive or negative thoughts about myself, no “selfish” dreams or desires or goals for the life that stretched endlessly before me.  Really, I was tearfully and prayerfully trying to cease to exist..  It’s no wonder that my depression often spiraled out of control, and I spent almost all of my free time in my teens lying on my bed like a zombie, alone, dead inside.

One day in my early twenties, as I was driving my car home from work, I heard an unexpectedly beautiful and compassionate new voice coming from the Christian radio station.  In his gentle Southern accent, he talked about dealing with the pain of rejection and struggling with poor self-esteem as a result; I stopped the car and cried.  It was the first time I felt that my broken-heartedness was not yet another fault of mine; it was the first time that I heard the idea of self-esteem referenced positively.  

Who was this pastor who seemed so liberal and gracious to me at the time? Charles Stanley, the president of the extremely conservative and fundamentalist Southern Baptist Convention.  

Starting with that one small first step of hearing a sympathetic voice on the radio, I’ve slowly been reconstructing a healthier and more balanced view of myself and others over the last ten years.  Shedding my misunderstanding of the Bible and my deep distrust of extra-biblical resources, including psychology, has been immensely helpful to me in my own journey.  It has opened up a whole new world of fascinating ideas, including ones that have helped me make sense of my own childhood experiences and their effects on me. 

Recently, I’ve encountered one particularly relevant idea that has increased my self-understanding. I am what personality psychologists call a “highly sensitive” or “high-reactive” person. This refers to an inborn aversion to novelty and a tendency to more easily become overstimulated; it is not very common, but it is strongly correlated with being introverted.  It explains why I always order the same food in restaurants, choose comfort over style, love predictability, and avoid spending too much time around loud noises and large crowds.  Understanding the biological basis of my personality quirks is helping me manage my stress and not demand too much of myself.

But it has been even more helpful to look back at my childhood with the understanding that I was a highly sensitive child. In her book “Quiet“, Susan Cain discusses how childhood experiences can affect the highly sensitive or high reactive child:

“The destinies of the most high-reactive kids are also influenced by the world around them–perhaps even more so than for the average child, according to a groundbreaking new theory dubbed ‘the orchid hypothesis’ by David Dobbs…This theory holds that many children are like dandelions, able to thrive in just about any environment.  But others, including the high-reactive types that Kagan studied, are more like orchids: they wilt easily, but under the right conditions can grow strong and magnificent.….

[T]he reactivity of these kids’ nervous systems makes them quickly overwhelmed by childhood adversity, but also able to benefit from a nurturing environment more than other children do.  In other words, orchid children are more strongly affected by all experience, both positive and negative.

Scientists have known for a while that high-reactive temperments come with risk factors.  These kids are especially vulnerable to challenges like marital tension, a parent’s death, or abuse.  They’re more likely than their peers to react to these events with depression, anxiety, and shyness.  Indeed, about a quarter of Kagan’s high-reactive kids suffer some degree of the condition known as ‘social anxiety disorder’….

High-reactive kids who enjoy good parenting, child care, and a stable home environment tend to have fewer emotional problems and more social skills than their lower-reactive peers, studies show.”  (p. 110-111)

I had wondered many times why some of my more extroverted peers who also experienced social isolation and authoritarian parenting seemed less traumatized and could enter mainstream society more quickly, while I struggled with severe depression and crippling anxiety for years and years.  In “Quiet”, I found a reason that in retrospect makes perfect sense.  As a highly sensitive child, the negative experiences simply affected me more strongly.

I started adulthood almost destroyed, with almost no ability to function.  Yet here I am today, a far happier and healthier person.  It turned out that my high sensitivity was an asset in my recovery in the end.  Once the conditions were right for me to “grow”, my development took off.  Positive attention, kindness, and acceptance coaxed me back to life and helped me grow into my true identity. 

Contrary to all the warnings I heard about psychology in my youth, I have found that the increased self-understanding has resulted in genuine self-improvement.  I much prefer this approach to the ineffective and tearful fumblings that were promoted by my church.