Like a gardening hoe, when used correctly it can help bring life and vitality to living things. Homeschooling is not an end in and of itself; rather, the end is for parents to raise healthy, well-rounded human beings. But used incorrectly, a tool can harm the very things or people it’s meant to help thrive.
My parents were two individuals that I believe used the tool of homeschooling well.
Thanks to their efforts, I was given a solid education that enabled me to get into a well-known university on a full-tuition scholarship and graduate from that same university four years later with honors. I had a wide variety of experiences while homeschooled that I believe contributed to the well-rounded person I am today. And I grew up learning to be comfortable with being the “odd one out” when there were no other homeschoolers around, which I think at least partially contributes to my willingness to risk how others may view me in order to do the right thing.
I also have many memories of things I may not have been able to do had I not been homeschooled: volunteer projects I did during school hours, exploring subjects not typically offered in school, getting to set my own pace.
Would I have received these same benefits had I gone to public or private school, instead of being homeschooled? I’m not sure. I think I probably would have, because I believe that my parents would have taught me many of the exact same things regardless of where I went to school. Even those things I wouldn’t have been able to pursue in school probably would have been pursued in a different way outside of school.
But that’s not really the point I’m trying to make. I don’t feel any need to prove that it was “homeschooling” specifically that contributed to the many positives in my childhood that made me who I am today. The point is that, in the hands of my parents, homeschooling was a tool that they used well (even if they did occasionally make a mistake here or there). Homeschooling wasn’t the only positive experience I could have had. But, it is the positive experience I did have.
And my positive experience with homeschooling is exactly why I chose to become a founding member of Homeschool Alumni Reaching Out (HARO).
I know that many people see my decision as a sort of betrayal against homeschooling. They assume I must think homeschooling is deeply flawed and dangerous.
But that’s not it at all. It’s precisely because of my positive experience with homeschooling that I believe every child has a right to an equally positive experience. And just like any educational method, homeschooling is a tool that can be used for good or for bad. In the hands of abusive parents, homeschooling can be downright torture. In the hands of good-hearted, well-equipped, healthy parents, homeschooling can provide a child with an excellent education, and potentially open doors that wouldn’t be opened otherwise.
I think it will show that neither Homeschoolers Anonymous nor HARO are anti-homeschooling. Rather, we are a group of individuals who have a wide range of experiences with homeschooling, but strongly believe that all children have the right to a positive educational experience.
Children’s Rights and Homeschooling: Patrick Farenga’s Thoughts
One of the reasons John Holt, a secular founder of the homeschooling movement, decided to fully support homeschooling was his hope that parents would be more likely to work patiently and differently with their children at home than teachers in school can, and would therefore learn from the children what is and isn’t working. Holt’s ideas about homeschooling are probably very different from what many members of Homeschoolers Anonymous experienced: Holt didn’t want to bring the techniques and concepts of school—which he showed in his books weren’t working in school anyway—into the home. “Don’t turn your home into a miniature school,” Holt advised in 1981 when he wrote his only book about homeschooling, Teach Your Own.
After years of working in schools Holt was appalled at the gross incivility, mindless activities, and outright meanness inflicted upon children in the name of education. One of the ways he imagined that things could be improved for children was to promote children’s rights, since his own efforts made him realize the futility of trying to make meaningful change within the school system (which is still reforming itself 32 years since Teach Your Own appeared). Holt wrote a book that describes how and why giving children rights makes practical sense: Escape From Childhood: The Needs and Rights of Children (1974; reprinted 2013). It was controversial when it was published, causing both liberals and conservatives to condemn Holt’s ideas that children should be allowed to do pretty much what any adult may legally do.
Up until 2012, 9 out of 10 of Holt’s books were still in print. Escape From Childhood is the only one of Holt’s books that I have never been able to interest another publisher in; all editions of the book have been published by HoltGWS since the original publisher let it go out of print. Clearly, this is not a topic mainstream people want to engage with but, as I’ve learned over the years, it is vitally important if we want to find other ways to help children and their families get out of bad situations besides creating more layers of child protective service agencies.
Many of the ideas Holt puts forth in Escape are to prevent tyrannies at home and in society, and they are based on our Bill of Rights, thereby grounding all people to the same rights and responsibilities. However, Holt adds a new dimension to the concept of rights to account for children’s inexperience and their need to learn from the choices they make over time. Rather than just give children the rights of citizenship all at once beause they have turned 18, Holt offers a framework where children are able to move in and out of the “walled garden of childhood” as they feel ready and able to, so they can test the waters of responsibility and swim, or decide to wait for another day if the responsibility is too heavy on them now. Holt felt the best way to get good at making choices is to make a lot of genuine choices and determine what worked best for you. Right now our society denies young people responsible choices, while expecting them to assume this same responsibility at an arbitrarily determined age. This is the essence of Holt’s argument, though I urge you to read his book and learn about the history of childhood and all the nuances about rights, children, families, and primary and secondary guardians that Holt presents.
The issue of children’s rights is large, but I want to focus specifically on child abuse and homeschooling. Holt deals with abuse from several angles in the book, including the adult points of view. For example, he discusses the burden of having children and how the authority of the old is diminishing, but Holt presses the case for why adults need to relinquish some of their authority in order to provide children the opportunity to grow independently.
. . . to expand protection against abuses of authority without diminishing authority, is impossible, a contradiction in terms. There can be no adequate protection against the abuse of authority, of parents or the state, except to give the victim the right to escape it.
The authority that Time has in mind when it talks about the “psychic benefits of parental authority” is not natural authority but only the power to compel, threaten, punish, and hurt. The fact is that children can be and are regularly punished, by parents and the law, for any of the reasons, and the same reasons for which slaves used to be punished—for talking back, for “disrespect,” for disobedience, for being at large without permission, for running away—in short, for doing anything that might imply that they think they have any freedom or rights at all. (p. 153)
Escape From Childhood is full of examples of how children, from the mentally challenged to compliant overachievers, are often hurt or neglected by adults who, “for their own good” force them to do things the children would rather not do, so I won’t labor the point here. However, it is important to note that Holt wrote this in 1974, not knowing anything about homeschooling as we know it; he saw all children in society as being mistreated. Holt was willing to take the chance that by supporting homeschooling some children will be raised by parents whose views of children and education are radically different from the self-actualizing vision of learning Holt supports. Holt hoped that most homeschooling parents would not be so obedient to the demands of modern educational theory or religious dogma and would instead learn directly from their children what was and wasn’t working for them, and make adjustments accordingly.
Unfortunately, many adults seem willing to sacrifice their relationship with their children upon the altar of education and dogma, so I’m not surprised that now, as adults, children whose lives were insecure and violent at home now want to sacrifice homeschooling upon the altar of education and dogma. However, I urge you to take a step back and reconsider strategy and tactics.
It is easy for me to imagine Homeschoolers Anonymous becoming a typical political group, uniting anti-homeschooling forces under the banner of regulating homeschooling to protect homeschooled children from abuse. This will certainly result in an increase of professional educators’ and government reach into people’s homes, which will lead to the exact opposite of what Holt advised: our homes will become miniature schools run by the state. Your anger at being physically and emotionally abused as children, and then, as adults, being outcast by the homeschooling community for publicly noting your suffering and wishing to ameliorate it for a new generation of homeschooled children, is perfectly understandable. However, homeschooling does not cause child abuse. Being a tight-knit or loose-knit family doesn’t cause child abuse; child abuse occurs in public and private schools, churches, sports, the entertainment field, in all professions. It is a problem that is much bigger than homeschooling and we should treat it as such.
I urge Homeschoolers Anonymous to recognize the fluid nature of homeschooling regulations and laws in the United States and how many of the court decisions that allow alternatives to compulsory attendance in public schools are based on religious exemptions that are tied to preserving traditional ways of life (Amish, Mennonite, and so on). It is unlikely at this time in our history that the courts are going to rule against religious freedoms. Further, many adults in the United States appear to support corporal punishment—paddling is explicitly allowed in public schools in 19 states—and its widespread, though no less punishing, variant: time outs in closets, padded rooms, and so on. It also needs to be noted that invasive practices such as electro-shock therapy for “difficult” children are permitted in many private institutions in states that otherwise ban corporal punishment in public facilities, so the situation is not easily solved by changing existing laws.
Rather than battle homeschooling regulations head on, with the real danger of creating more regulations for secular homeschoolers and strengthening the religious exemptions that permit families to prevent their daughters from aspiring to high school or college and keep their sons in line with stern obedience to authority, Homeschoolers Anonymous can build on the do-it-yourself model that homeschooling embodies. The prospect of increased scrutiny by outsiders keeps many abusive situations from being publicly acknowledged, and homeschooling is no exception. However, I think Homeschoolers Anonymous is correct to sound the alarm now so we can create awareness and solutions about this difficult issue that is different than what we’ve seen to date from other institutions. Like the leaders in the Vatican, the BBC, Penn State, and numerous other institutions, homeschooling’s leaders can easily fall prey to the means (ignore or cover up the abuse) justifying the ends (the institution continues to flourish despite the ongoing abuse, which the institution says it is handling in its own mysterious way). Like you, I refuse to see homeschooling freedoms preserved upon the broken bones and dashed hopes of children, and I hope we can get others to agree to offer help and enforce existing abuse laws rather than accept the status quo as the only way to preserve homeschooling freedoms.
Child abuse is a major, ugly issue that is difficult to discuss, especially among homeschoolers who are fearful of government intrusions into their lives. We tend to dismiss child abuse in homeschooling circles because most of “us” are “good people” or “good Christians.” But the reality is there is some child abuse going on in homeschooling, just as it goes on in schools and homes all around the world. To have the courage, as Homeschoolers Anonymous does, to stand up and call out an injustice being done to an unrepresented minority, children, is an important first step. Showing how this injustice is perpetuated in practice can help parents and children see that their situation is not normal and they are stuck in a bad homeschooling situation. Homeschoolers Anonymous can then provide support for dialog within their family, healing, or escape routes, among other options. It is important to let children and spouses know they are not alone and that others have navigated this path. The Underground Railroad was built and functioning for many years before the Emancipation Proclamation was made law, and I think we need to remember that.
Building the moral and legal case for children’s rights should not be a single, high-stakes courtroom battle focused on homeschooling, but a tactical approach focused on helping children and spouses find ways to get out of abusive situations and a strategic one of uniting with other groups that seek to end corporal punishment—not homeschooling—for children in society. We have a long tradition at HoltGWS of being against corporal punishment (scroll to the bottom of the page) and the list includes a Christian homeschooling group opposed to hitting children (Parenting in Jesus’ Footsteps).
I thank Homeschoolers Anonymous for the opportunity to express some of my views on children’s rights and homeschooling. There is so much more to say; I’ve only just scratched the surface with these remarks. However, I look forward to seeing the creative and powerful solutions you will make regarding children’s rights based on your collective experiences.
Escape From Childhood will be also available as a printed book from Amazon as of June 1, 2013.
About the author:
Patrick Farenga started work with John Holt in 1981 and published Growing Without Schooling magazine and numerous other publications related to homeschooling, unschooling, and learning outside of school from Holt’s death in 1985 until 2001. Farenga and his wife homeschooled their three daughters, who are now adults. He continues to keep Holt’s ideas alive by writing, speaking, and publishing through HoltGWS LLC and www.JohnHoltGWS.com.
When individuals who attended public school talk about the negative experiences they had, point out that many public schools are failing or that certain practices in public schools leave much to be desired, and call for improving the schools and reforming public education, they don’t face accusations of being anti-public school, of just being bitter, of being angry at their parents, or of over-generalizing and calling all public schools universally bad. No one tries to silence them for “giving public schooling a bad reputation,” accuses them of trying to ruin things for everyone else, or says that the problem was just their shitty family situation.
Why is it that it’s just fine to call for reform of the public schools, hip even, but it’s taboo to call for reform of homeschooling? Why is criticism of public schools widespread and expected, but criticism of homeschooling by those who were homeschooled themselves causes everyone to lose their heads?
Why is it that criticism of homeschooling by those who were homeschooled is panned off as some form of adolescent rebellion while criticism of public schools is practically trendy?
Why is calling for reforming homeschooling portrayed as trying to “ruin things for everyone else” while reforming public schools is seen as an effort to make things better for everyone’s children?
Why is voicing criticism of homeschooling or talking about negative homeschool experiences portrayed as being anti-homeschool while criticizing public schools or talking about negative experiences in public schools isn’t similarly portrayed as being “anti-public school”?
Why do people shrug and say that bad homeschooling is just a result of shitty parents and there’s nothing to be done while at the same time arguing that we need school reform to improve shitty schools and implementing programs to help public school kids with shitty family backgrounds?
Why is criticizing public schools and calling for public school reform seen as healthy and good while criticizing homeschooling and calling for homeschool reform is taboo? Shouldn’t we want to improve and reform both, cut down on abuse and neglect in both, and ultimately work toward the best interests of children in whatever educational methods their parents have chosen for them?
Something is very broken about how we discuss this issue.
The following is a list of things that range from impolite to incredibly disrespectful that I have heard since I started speaking out about this issue. I’m (unfortunately) not making any of these up and I’ve actually had every single one of them either said to me or seen them said to others. If you don’t want to be a jerk, please don’t say any of the following:
1. Tell me how good of a homeschooling experience you or someone you know had and imply that it cancels out mine.
2. Say that obviously it was just a parenting problem, not a homeschooling problem at all.
3. Say that obviously it was a religious fundamentalism problem/bible-based cult problem, not a homeschooling problem at all.
4. Say that I am not describing real homeschooling so I should not be talking about my experience like it was homeschooling at all.
5. Say that I need to be careful, that openly speaking about this will help enemies of homeschooling (nosy neighbors/government/the minions of the Antichrist) have the political cover to mess up or destroy homeschooling for the good homeschoolers.
6. Say that obviously because I am standing here today with a job/degree/spouse/all four limbs that the homeschooling I got really wasn’t too bad and therefore we all should keep calm and carry on.
7. Say that my parents only homeschooled because it was a problem with the school district and obviously any public school in my area/state/nation/world would have been worse.
8. Say that maybe my homeschooling experience was even secretly good and I likely don’t know enough about what I’d be comparing it to, with public school being so awful and all.
9. Say that you/your kid/someone you know had a much worse experience in public school/government school/a hole in the ground and so I should quit bellyaching and overdramatizing my homeschooling experience and instead just be grateful it wasn’t as bad of a story as the one you just told.
10. Say that what happened to me was so uncommonly rare that it’s not something we need to be generally concerned about.
11. Say that you are sure that it was that my parents were uneducated/rural/brainwashed/obviously raised wrong and that’s why they did what they did, even though you know nothing about my parents’ background.
12. Say it is obvious that I am so hurt/broken/angry/bitter/emotional/weird/vengeful that I have lost track of reality, don’t know what I’m talking about on any of this, and no one should listen.
13. Say that I need to just let the past be the past, understand that parents make mistakes/are not perfect, then go forgive mine (immediately assuming that I haven’t), and stop disrespecting them by talking about this issue.
14. Say that the way life works is that your parents can raise you however they want/force you to be the person they ask/mess you up for the first 18 years of your life and then it will be your turn when you have your own kids.
Concerning religion and politics:
15. Say that if my parents were real Christians that this never would have happened.
16. Say that this is obviously a problem with Christianity itself and all homeschoolers should respond by being secular/atheist/Buddhist/some other faith.
17. Say that you seriously doubt (or had it laid upon your heart by Jesus himself) that it is in God’s will/my best interest/society’s interest for me to be talking/thinking/spreading lies like this and you will pray/worry/be quite concerned for me.
18. Ask me if I am aware that when I talk about my story it is mainly going to be helping people who hate homeschoolers/Christians/parents/Americans/suburban white people unfairly stereotype/hurt/oppress all of your group because people will mistakenly think you are like me and my family and obviously you are nothing like us at all.
19. Accuse me of being put up to this by teachers unions/liberal brainwashing/feminism/Satan and not having actual good reasons for how I characterize a problem I lived through and/or am studying.
20. Accuse me of being anti-homeschooling, anti-Christian, and anti-family all in one fell swoop because I said what happened to me should not happen to other kids.
Now that I’ve listed all the rude, insensitive, selfish, and potentially threatening things I can think of that you should not be saying to people who have shared their horrible (or even just a little bit bad bordering on mediocre) homeschooling experience (I’m sure I left some out, so please feel free to include them in the comments), here are eight examples of something that might be a good idea to say:
1. Thank you for sharing your story.
2. I am trying to understand where/when/how this occurred. Can I ask you? How did X, Y, or Z happen/come to be/take place?
3. What helped you get out/get better?
4. What do you think could have made this situation better/not happen at all?
5. What do you think someone like me might do or keep in mind to prevent this from happening to others?
6. What do you like to do today, now that you’ve left that environment?
7. Can I share what you said with my friend/relative/pastor/neighbor/blog readers/Facebook?
8. I wish you well and hope that tomorrow/this week/life/the future will be good for you.
Also, even if this stuff is foreign to you and you really have no idea (or maybe don’t care) what it is like to walk in the shoes of someone who has had this kind of homeschooling experience, please try for a moment to imagine how it would make you feel and what it might lead you to do and then have compassion. Personally, I love to argue and I have a lot of “fight” in me, but for many people who are sharing their story, just finding the words and the strength to do so is incredibly hard. People should not, under any circumstances, be pushing someone who’s telling a survivor story to defend themselves or expect them to deal with the kind of obnoxious behavior I listed above.
The following piece was originally published by Karen Loethen on her blog Homeschool Atheist Momma with the title, “Still Looking for Disadvantages of Homeschool?” It is reprinted with her permission.Karen describes herself as “a homeschooling mum of two children (ages 15 and 12) and the wife of an amazing man.” She and her family “are Midwestern Americans, currently living in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia.”
I’ve been wondering, do I write pro homeschool stuff because I am simply reinforcing my insecurities about homeschooling?
I write it so that others can find pro-homeschooling stuff easily.
While we can not reparent any of these wounded people who are trying so hard to heal themselves, we can offer them our love and seek to understand their claims. We, as homeschooling parents, should never attempt to discredit someone’s story (as I have seen on some of these sites). No, instead, we must learn from these experiences and offer these people our love and compassion. And offer them our thanks for being willing to share their stories. It takes courage in this world to stand up and disprove the majority. And, besides, they are people who are courageously, fearfully offering their life stories, hoping for healing.
If you go there, write nothing, or write only messages of love and support. It is homeschooling parents who are insecure and fearful themselves who do not allow these voices to be heard without confrontation. I understand that fear, but these boards are not the place to put one’s own issues out there.
As one woman at the Homeschoolers Anonymous website said, today, homeschooling is often portrayed in the media as some great and noble cause or as a quaint, folksy version of the Great American Dream. I’m grateful for the “improvement,” as homeschool has had a fairly dreadful rep for a long time. Sadly, some of that rep is well-deserved. I must also add that most of the stories (all the I have read today, in fact) share a fundamental Christian motivation or Evangelical basis for their isolationist and authoritarian approaches to their homeschooling and parenting. This is not the point of my post, but it is an essential piece of the puzzle.
I think of homeschooling as an extension of, as a part of, parenting.
In my mind there is no way to separate the two.
I think we should all have the right to freely educate our children without state involvement. But this presupposes that all adults are capable of making healthy and wise choices for their families and we know that this is not the case. But whose job is it to decide who should and who should not homeschool? No one is sitting in an office making lists of people who can and should become parents. Anyone can become a parent regardless of maturity, ability, mental issues, all other issues, etc. Parents of all ability levels have always existed in the world.
Maybe we can all agree that not all people who are parents should have been parents.
Similarly, not all people who homeschool should homeschool.
To homeschool, to parent, to the best advantage of one’s children, a parent needs to be mature enough to put the needs of themselves Last on the List and the needs of their children First on the List. A person suited to homeschool and parent children must have no philosophy, culture, or creed that puts anything, anything ahead of the good of the children. A person well-suited to parenting and homeschooling children is a person who is willing and able and apt to reflect upon new information and evidence and use that evidence and make changes, improvements, adjustments when necessary. The person adequately suited to parenting and homeschooling is a person who takes the time to learn about a variety of educational and parenting options and looks at those options carefully, making decisions based on what makes a better human being from each child.
And more, I believe that the best approach to parenting, in my opinion, is a person who manages to believe in their children, who even believes in the human race! I believe the more successful parent and homeschooling parent is one who finds humor in life and looks for fun. I believe it essential to think well of people. I think it necessary to put Love at the center of family life. I think it necessary to be a self-aware adult. And I think it necessary that I spend time locating my own issues, growth areas, and limitations. And seek to improve myself.
Yes, I can be a bit serious about this.
I believe that adults owe it to themselves and to their progeny to become the best people they can be.
Because when they don’t, it’s the kids who suffer.