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.

The Curse of Being Bound to an Image

CC image courtesy of Flickr, Jen Linfield Photography. Image links to source.
CC image courtesy of Flickr, Jen Linfield Photography. Image links to source.

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 February 2, 2015.

It’s been over nine years since I left my parents and over time my perception of how much progress I’ve made in my life has changed many times, fluctuating between sometimes thinking I am doing a terrible job at being an adult and sometimes thinking I am doing well. Through some enlightening conversations I’ve had recently with my friend James, who is in my cohort of ex-fundamentalists, I’ve come to realize that in spite of everything that I re-evaluated and realized since I left, I missed a very important thing. (I am not going to say that I missed one very important thing because I am sure that there are other things I’ve missed as well.)

Here it is: we were raised to believe that there is a pre-set standard for what adulthood should look like.

I was given to understand that I should grow up and get married at age 18-21, give or take, and after that point I should be completely mature and adult. There would be no need for further growth or any further emotional development. I should have my spirituality completed settled and sorted out, and I should not be different in any way, other than age, from any other married woman who was, say 40  or 50 (the same message was given to young men, although it was gendered differently).

There is a small inconsistency in this idea because older people are assumed to have more wisdom if they are telling you something they think you should do differently, but other than that, young adults were expected to be completely mature.

To get a somewhat more rounded idea of what other people (who were not raised in fundamentalist homes) internalized regarding expectations of how adulthood should unfold, I have spoken to several other people in my life. First, I asked my husband Chris what messages he received from his family on this topic.  He was raised in a fairly “average” home, if there is such a thing. He said that he wasn’t taught specifically that he needed to have his life together at a certain age. Instead, his family taught him life skills that were needed. His parents have supported him and his siblings in making their different choices, and when something hasn’t worked out the way they were hoping, his parents supported them again in making new choices. His parents have shown me the same kind of supportive attitude, when I have had hopes and dreams that didn’t work out. They tend to meet us where we are at, and while they give advice and input, they only show support to their adult children when they are struggling; they do not say guilt-inducing things, or say that they are disappointed in their children.

I also spoke to my friend Amber about her understanding of her parents’ attitudes about emotional and lifestyle development and this is what she had to say: her parents strongly encouraged her to start working early, to learn how to have a source of income and how to manage money. If she wanted money for extras, she needed to earn it. She was also strongly encouraged to go to enter some form of higher learning (apprenticeship, college, etc) right out of high school; her parents felt that this was a good idea to avoid becoming involved with other things instead of finishing school or an apprenticeship, as it is more difficult to finish pursuing such goals when you are married, have a mortgage, or have children. Her parents demonstrated what a good relationship should look like and what to expect; but they had no expectation that their children should have a partner at a certain age or have kids at a certain age. Her parents also taught her and her brother that women should be respected, and are equals, and encouraged her to be independent. She says that it was expected that she wouldn’t settle for anything less than a partner who treated her as an equal, showed her the respect she deserved, and loved her more than anything else.

In terms of emotional maturity Amber and her brother were able to go to their parents for anything, and her parents expressed that they felt that it was their life duty to look after their children, even now (Amber’s brother is now in his 30’s). Her parents have modeled for her that even parents don’t need to be independent, allowing her to see their vulnerability in a safe way. As Amber and her brother have gotten older, they are there for their parents for support and advice sometimes, when applicable, as well as their parents continuing to support them,  Her parents encouraged her to understand that there are life stages and people change and adapt over time. They encouraged her to take her own path, and made it clear that if her chosen path was to change, that would be okay too. She said that above all, the message she received was that she should pursue what she wanted. I asked her if, in her experience as part of society (in a secular “average” household) this is a typical message for young people to receive, and she said that within her circle growing up, and other people she has known since then, it appears to be typical.

In a recent conversation with one of my sisters, we were talking about her life plans and I asked her when she thought she should have her “stuff” together. She told me that she figures she should be well on her way with her life plan by 21. She has a pretty good idea of how the next 8 years should unfold, and strong expectations about what she should accomplish in that time. When I was 20, I thought that by the time I was 25, I should have my career down pat (which was still ironic for me at that point in time since according to my parents, there was no intention for me, as a woman, to have a career at all), and I should certainly have everything in my head settled and sorted by the time I was 25. I have struggled quite a bit with certain things since leaving my family, but I believed there was a deadline for dealing with those issues.

I thought that I should have the perfect relationship, which would turn into the perfect marriage. I thought I should sail smoothly through school and within six months, I should land a good job and get established in my career. I should start a family and never struggle with my past issues again. Overall, I have a good life, things just haven’t all worked out quite as smoothly as I thought that they would, if I tried hard enough. My career hasn’t taken off quite the way I was hoping. I struggled a lot with feeling ready to want children, because of what I went through a child. I was talking to my sister Natalie about this, and she pointed out that when our parents reached this age and stage in their lives, they chose Patriarchy and Quiverfull ideology, rather than sticking it out and trying to succeed in the 80’s when professionalism was taking off for both men and women. (Note: I feel comfortable saying that my parents did not succeed, since both of them have been unemployed for the greater part of the past 30 years).

The pressure that was put on me to have children, by my parents and the ideology they adopted, has also contributed to feelings of failure as an adult, as I am now 26 and do not have children.

I made a difficult decision to share this next bit on my blog, because I feel that it is not talked enough about and I feel that hearing about this may be good for others who have gone through the same thing as I did. I decided last summer that I was ready to have children. My husband and I had been talking about it for several years, and I finally felt like I was ready to take that step. So I went off birth control and we started trying. In October, 2014, I got pregnant, but by December I had a second ultrasound that showed that I had miscarried. That didn’t fit into what I thought my life plan should be.

Having the miscarriage brought up a lot of pain for me, which meant that I had to face that I hadn’t wished away my struggles from the past. I have a lot of painful memories from when I was a child. My childhood memories were linked to the idea of having my own children in a way that I think is reasonable. I get triggered by things sometimes, which is difficult. I had this idea that I needed to put those feelings and memories aside, and move on in my head. I am not talking about healing, I am talking about forcing it away. And I really tried to do that. I wanted to. I wanted to live a life where the things that happened to me, didn’t happen. But that’s not true, that stuff did happen. I survived. But not without scars. There is still some pain and some struggles. Some bad days. And somehow, that is okay. It’s sad that I had a miscarriage. But there is lots of time for me to heal from that and move forward.

I’ve come to realize that people I know, who weren’t raised like I was, think that it is okay to start their lives out slowly and work their way up to where they want to go. They think that it is okay to be more mature at 25 than they were at 20, and to be more mature and established at 30 than 25, and more mature and established when they are 40 then when they were 30. To see life as an unfolding story. Not one that you have to finish writing by age 20 or 25.

This is the curse of being bound to an image of what your life should look like. I am shocked to have realized at age 26 that I had never re-evaluated my feelings about my life path and the messages that I received about it. I have re-thought so much, and somehow I missed this huge piece of what life is all about. But it’s not too late. I hope that by sharing my husband’s and my friend’s thoughts on their parents’ attitudes, I can show that not everyone thinks this way. It is so easy (and so frustrating) to feel that you have gotten all the way out of fundamentalism but still be hanging onto an image or a timeline of how your life should be, that is not based in reality or has nothing to do with what you want in your life.

Discovering who you are and what you want, and pursuing that for yourself, is such an essential part of the human experience. It’s too big to miss out on. It’s still important for me to be functional. I still want to keep actively pursuing my goals. But I am going to let myself of the hook a little, and not count set-backs at 26 as a sign of global failure in my life. It just means that I am so much younger than I realized.

I have so much more time than I realized. There is lots of time for success. 

Differentiation and Emotional Cut-offs

CC image courtesy of Flickr, Kamaljith K V. Image links to source.
CC image courtesy of Flickr, Kamaljith K V. Image links to source.

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 September 15, 2013.

Murray Bowen’s theories on differentiation of self and emotional cut-offs provide an excellent lens for viewing the complex relationships that exist between family members who were raised in quiverfull and Christian patriarchal families. In such situations, family roles are artificially skewed by religious influence and the necessity for sibling-parenting due to sheer numbers in the family.

Bowen’s theory on differentiation of self describes how people are inherently dependent on each other. At the same time, each individual needs to balance how much to conform to a group for acceptance (a universal need) and to what extent to be emotionally independent in order to deal with unavoidable conflict without having to take sides or dissolve emotionally. (You can read more about Bowen’s theory here.)

Bowen’s theory of emotional cutoff describes how sometimes people with complex relationships in their families may choose to create distance from family members or declare a permanent separation from them. The theory explains that this is not always a good solution because there are patterns of relationships that are formed in childhood that dictate how the individual relates to new people in life, because they may look to new people to fill emotional roles that are inappropriate to the relationship.

I left my quiverfull family when I was 17. I was the oldest daughter (second child) of nine. For a while I remained in contact with many of the people who contributed to the safety of the patriarchal environment, including my father and leaders of the church he attended.

Acceptance in a group is a universal need, but a problem arises when the cost is too great.

I had not really found a new group yet at this point, but the cost of acceptance in the former group was to return home and submit to my father. That was not an option for me.


Conflict happens, it is unavoidable in order to take part in social connections. By conflict I do not mean drama or arguments. However, not everyone will agree with everyone else. Thus there needs to be a way of dealing with this between friends or loved ones without meltdowns and emotional cut-offs, simply because instituting an emotional cut-off when the going gets rough is not a sustainable method of remaining in social connections. Even if you were surrounded by people who were willing and able to float in and out of contact on a whim related to an emotional incident, at some point a complete lack of trust will be reached and one side will not be willing to reconnect.

If a person flees from painful social and family connections to others, they will come to new relationships with a greater emotional need than is typical in a friendship. They may find others who are also looking to fill that greater emotional need in themselves, which is how co-dependent relationships are formed. This is also not a good solution because co-dependence will eventually harm someone, whether one side moves to a new co-dependent relationship and drops the other, or if they sink too far into their emotional relationship to the detriment of their own mental health.

The goal of differentiation is to avoid emotional cut-off but also stay away from inappropriate emotional connection while remaining in acceptance in a group.

For me when I left the patriarchal system, I had to find a new social group to obtain acceptance from, while learning how to avoid the pitfall of an inappropriate emotional connection. Those inappropriate connections did take place, but eventually I learned what was happening and how to avoid it.

Differentiation means being able to be a whole person in spite of what is going on for other people or what negative stimulus is experienced.

There is a saying that other people are not responsible for how you feel. This does not mean that people can treat each other poorly by any means, and if they are involved in a social contract that states that they will treat each other well, they are bound by that contract. Triggers and negative stimulus will happen all the time in life; it is impossible to exist in a safe vacuum without these. The bottom line though, is that you are responsible for how a trigger makes you react. Everyone is at a different place, and there cannot be an expectation that everyone will be able to take responsibility all the time. Self-awareness and growth takes time, and people deserve the help that is required to get there.

When I was working on my social work degree, I provided counseling to women who had experienced domestic violence. This was obviously a very triggering experience for me, but I was working with two very wise women who suggested that rather than hide from what was triggering me, I actively face those triggers and deconstruct them. This means that rather than dissolve emotionally when I heard a sad situation, I perform my job in that room and help the survivor process what had happened, and then later when I became sad about it, acknowledge why I was feeling sad, that it was because something happened to them and I could relate to it, instead of just feeling sad and then taking that sadness into other relationships.

There are a very large number of intricate relationships in my family. Some of us do not talk at all. Some of the siblings talk rarely. I have made it clear to a few of my siblings that if they have something that they would like to talk about, they can text me and let me know what they would like to discuss and we can do that, but that I will not take surprise phone calls from them. Interestingly, the siblings I have that arrangement with do not text and let me know when they want to discuss something. They try to call and I let it go to voicemail, and they do not leave voicemails. They just try again and again, and I usually send a text asking what is going on, and get no response.

I have one sibling I get along very well with. We do not share exactly the same views on everything, but we certainly respect each other’s right to hold different views. We spend time together but respect each other’s space. We have fun times but only discuss the past when we both agree to do so. I have another sibling who has quite a different lifestyle than I do, but we still get along. We discuss what is different about our views without the intention of getting the other to change her mind. We do not spend much time together because our different lifestyles put us on such different time tables and locations that it is rarely possible.

I have another sibling with which I have a more confusing relationship, and we have a relationship when she wants one. Currently she does not, although she didn’t end a relationship in a dramatic fashion, more so she faded out of my life. I have three younger siblings who still live with my mother. I do not see the two little brothers much because I do not go to my mother’s house. I do see my youngest sister on a regular basis, and we have a good relationship.

My relationship with my mother is complex; I am not spending social time with her. I do not have a social relationship with my father. On the few occasions I have seen him in the last several years, I have taken a moment to make sure he knows I think he is an abhorrent human being. I’m not loud about it, but he knows. I have refused opportunities to meet with him in the past several years to discuss our relationship, and he doesn’t try anymore. As far as I know, it has been quite some time since he has even mentioned my existence to anyone. I have sometimes seen him around town without talking to him.

In the past, I would have described some of these relationships differently. Some of what happens in these relationships is triggering. However, I believe that I am responsible for how I feel after interactions with my family. I don’t think I always was responsible. I had to learn that I was responsible and learn how to take care of my own emotions, so there was a time that I was not responsible. There is also the chance that at some point there will be such an overwhelming amount of negative events and triggers that I could lose responsibility for a while. However now that I know, I am still responsible to eventually move on or to get help to do so.

People need acceptance, and people need other people. They need to take part in a social contract where they receive help and help others. It facilitates such relationships if they can take responsibility for their own emotions and be whole people in spite of what happens. No one can be perfect all the time and shouldn’t feel pressured to try to be perfect. People can work toward emotional independence and an ability to stand firm in their own heads even when everyone around them is doing something that they shouldn’t.

Learning about yourself is a powerful enterprise.

The Impact of Parental Values and Opinions on Educational Outcomes

CC image courtesy of Flickr, Our Lady of Disgrace. Image links to source.
CC image courtesy of Flickr, Our Lady of Disgrace. Image links to source.

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 December 17, 2014.

The impact of attitudes towards education, especially higher education, and its impact on adult life, has recently come up in discussion in the home school survivor community. We all have different experiences and heard variations of different messages while growing up in homeschooling families. Here is my experience:

My parents didn’t place much value on education. We were homeschooled in a way, meaning we were at home and some effort was made to buy books and teach lessons. But the underlying organization and structure wasn’t there, and they didn’t have the motivation or follow through to make it happen. We received a relatively decent education in the first few grades, I assume; we learned to read and do basic math in those years. But no one received any education past about grade 6-8, depending on the subject.

They taught that you didn’t need college or university to succeed in life. They said that because we were homeschooled, we were special, and people would understand that and recognize the extraordinary intelligence we were gifted with, without needing a diploma to prove it. They talked about the bullying and abuses that were perpetrated by public school and high school teachers. My mother described at length times that she was publicly humiliated in class by her teachers, and how she could not stand the public schools and that they were protecting us from those abuses.

As a girl though, there were really no plans for me to have a future at all.

Other than vague mentions of a husband and kids in my future, it wasn’t discussed. Even the emphasis on me needing to be able to cook, clean, and help raise my siblings was mainly openly rooted in my parents’ need for my help, and it was not even masked as ‘training for the future’ except to outsiders (conservative fundamentalist outsiders). Oddly, sometimes when I talked about wanting a career, it wasn’t really shot down, and my parents told me to trust their education system and I would get where I wanted. They brought back the line that I was incredibly smart and special, and that satisfied me and I believed it.

My brothers were told they could  have any career they wanted, without college. They were told that someone would hire them or they could have their own businesses, all without college or even finishing high school. They said that years of education was part of the new age government control system and we needed to break free.

Due to the chaos in my childhood home, both of my close in age brothers did not achieve more than an average of a grade 8 or 9 education. They have spent time as adults earning a GED, with various rates of success. They most certainly were not granted excellent careers on the basis of being special and homeschooled.

Because I attended high school against my parents’ wishes and also went to university, my story is different, however I can still speak to the impact of the anti-college attitude.

Because there was no direction in my life, with no real hopes and dreams, until I was 17, I didn’t see the point of pursuing much education at all. What line should be drawn on when to end the homeschooling process when the goal is not college? So I did not resist when my parents stopped making an effort to educate me. I did not advance at all academically between age 10 and age 12. I made some more progress at age 12, but once I was 13 or 14 their impact on my education was pretty much over. I continued to read Bob Jones textbooks until I was 15, and wrote down answers on my own, but it was for myself, no one checked them.

I did not complete a grade 8 education at that time. I was not taught math past grade 6 until I went to high school at age 17. I never had any intention of pursuing a high school education until the year I turned 17, although I had a vague plan to go to university. The year I turned 17, my grandparents told me that I wouldn’t be able to go to university without a secondary education.

So I went to school, and I struggled. I struggled with ambivalence, knowing that it wasn’t what my parents wanted me to do, and some doubt because of the message I had received that I was special and shouldn’t have to prove it. But the courses were hard and unlike my experience with the Bob Jones textbooks, guessing didn’t work, especially with math. I had two dear math teachers who did a phenomenal job, but it’s hard to describe the crushing feeling of inadequacy you experience when you find out at age 17 that the 14 year old students are more educated than you.

The ambivalence followed me into university. I was only at the highschool for two and a half years, not nearly long enough to reverse all the messages about how unnecessary higher education was. I still tried for a while to guess and at least prove to myself that I already knew everything and didn’t need to learn. Because I didn’t learn how to build and maintain a career from my parents, since they did not do this, I felt guilty about having that as a goal. I felt guilty because it somehow felt arrogant, and I still had some feelings of inadequacy. I felt guilty because I was also proud of myself and felt guilty about the pride. I was also a bit afraid, because people warned me that higher education corrupts; although they seemed just as worried about the high school being corrupting as they were about university.

I finished university, and it turns out I was quite academically inclined. But not special. I still needed to learn, and to do that I had to learn how to learn first. I think that some people who are believers in homeschooling might read this and think that I needed to learn how to learn to fit into the public school mold, but that is not what I mean. I was able to learn as much as my mother was able to teach me; basic reading, writing and arithmetic. I believe there is such a thing as academically successful homeschooling, and in those cases those students continue to learn how to learn as their ability to process increasingly more complex information progresses. When children are not taught how to learn, or when there are other circumstances that disrupt that process, such as abuse, their progress can become stalled.

Growing up with parents who have negative attitudes towards education can remove motivation from bright young students, when there is nothing to strive towards.

It can create confusion when students do decide to pursue education. And for those that internalize those messages, and do not pursue education, the cost is high. Without an education, it is hard to get jobs. Where I live, even Subway and McDonald’s ask that you either have a high school diploma or show that you are working on one. Getting into a trade can also be difficult, as most of the trades jobs eventually require you to get a “ticket” which means going to school, and if you haven’t learned how to learn and test, you won’t be able to succeed in the trade program either.

Although some workplaces look at experience, moving up in companies and getting promotions can be heavily based on education as well, meaning that even those with experience can stay in entry level positions (at entry level wages) because of lack of education. Saying that one was homeschooled will not get someone a job or a promotion, and if people have not excelled in the learning process and become critical and reflective thinkers, their people skills and self management will also suffer.

Even a girl who is raised in a conservative home and wants to be a homeschooling mother needs to know how to learn, and has to have learned enough to effectively homeschool her children. She needs to be reflective and a critical thinker in order to manage a home and a family, and to juggle the responsibilities of teaching and parenting effectively. She will need to be able to learn how to parent, and how to deal with it if a child has special needs.

The stakes are high, and an education holds more weight than just a piece of paper. 

Socialization and Psychological Maltreatment: Isolating Children and Teenagers


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 3, 2014.

This post deals with parents isolating and controlling their children’s social interactions; of course my parents and many other homeschooling parents have engaged in many other forms of control, but this is one that people don’t seem to realize is a problem. Below, I give some examples of social isolation and control in my own life, and then reference work from Roberta Hibbard, Jane Barlow, and Harriet MacMillan to show how social isolation can be a serious problem for children who are subjected to it.

As I have said in previous posts, many of the people who were involved with my family over the years still don’t really get what the problem was. They will admit that my parents were a bit overprotective. Depending on the day they might even admit that my parents were controlling. But they always cycle back to trying to convince me that my parents were just doing their best, just trying to keep us safe. Then sometimes the same people concede that not everything was perfect but assure me that my father has changed.

I don’t spend much time around people who think they are in a position to re-write my history for me.

Once when I was about 15, I was something like friends with the neighbour girl. She was about 2 years older than me, and very conservative (more so than we were, in some ways – they attended a very conservative Mennonite church). Her parents and my parents ran in the same circles and spent time together talking about fundamentalism (not their word). Her dad had a home business, and one day she called and asked if I wanted to go with her to a little hamlet about 15 minutes away to pick up a part with her for her dad. My dad turned this invitation into a really big deal. He told me I had to ask her if I could call back in a few minutes so we could discuss it. I hadn’t been out of the house for days, and I really wanted to go on this 30 minute adventure with her.

I sat down with my parents, and they went over how they felt I had behaved over the past while, pointing out instances of rebellion and ways I could have tried harder in helping out around the house. In reality, I was a full time mini-mom, I cooked and cleaned and homeschooled my siblings and gardened and changed diapers. I wasn’t being taught anything anymore, although I was still being “homeschooled” I didn’t say any of that to them. I displayed appropriate contriteness and promised to mend my behaviour, and I was allowed to go. They selected several chores I would need to complete before going, and said she could pick me up in an hour. I called her back, very excited, and she reacted with confusion. It was just a short trip to grab something and she just wondered if I wanted to come. Furthermore, it was an errand she needed to run quickly for her father, and she had not planned to wait even the fifteen minutes it had taken for me to call her back, much less another hour. She went and checked with her dad, and he agreed he could wait an hour if that meant I was able to go.

This is the problem: when a teenager is “homeschooled” like that, not really doing school work anymore, and spending most of their time being the assistant mother, it actually costs the parents for the child to do something that doesn’t serve the family. And I want to be clear, although my parents were notably controlling, it wasn’t just them, there are quite a number of girls that I knew at that age that experienced a similar level of control. Every chance I had to get out of the house was treated with exaggerated importance. And then my parents have that added power to exhort even more compliant behavior.

I could give so many more detailed examples of this, like the time I “lost all privileges” (of which there were few) for being a few minutes late getting back when I went with another neighbor Mennonite girl into town to – wait for it – drop off her mother’s homemade quilts to customers. My father decided what a reasonable time was for this errand that had nothing to do with him at all, and I had the girl rush me home in a cold sweat when I realized I would be late. This errand was one that was planned in advance, and I had to earn the privilege to go with days of displaying a perfect attitude, and days of hard work. And being a few minutes late meant I lost the ability to go anywhere for months. My father allotted two hours for the trip, and we were about 20 minutes out of town. That gave us 1 hour and ten minutes to do all her errands for the quilt business.

I know a number of Mennonite teenagers from a certain church when I was 14-15 and my brother and I were invited to their youth groups. We also wanted to attend church with them on Sunday evenings. My parents treated each weekly occurrence of these activities as special privileges that they arbitrarily allowed us to earn sometimes but not others. I often wanted to go to someone’s house after church, or have someone over, but my father would not give advance permission, or even answer me if I asked him after church. He would sometimes turn to me in the van as we were leaving the parking lot and tell me that I could have someone over, or that if someone wanted me over I could go. By then, everyone would already have plans so I sometimes went back to the group and pretended to ask, and that no one was interested. I was too embarrassed to try to make plans at that point. If I refused to go over, he would be upset with me and say that I didn’t really want that privilege and shouldn’t be wasting his time asking.

My parents were able to pass this behaviour off as protective. And technically that is true, I suppose. So what is the problem?

First of all, the way they restricted my social activity, including Sunday night church, really skewed my concept of social interactions.

Social activities were something that I coveted and dreamed about, but experienced so rarely that I didn’t know how to handle myself. I tried to be funny and make people enjoy being my friend, which of course just made me seem odd. I felt envious of others my age that were allowed to have regular social interactions. Those with a more normal social life seemed more well-adjusted then me, and I felt this when I was with them, which increased my feelings of inadequacy. I felt like those with normal privileges were more important than me, because I was sometimes put in the position to try and solicit their attention and invitations. This skewed my sense of value of myself and others.

Because I had to behave so carefully in order to get a chance to take part in a social activity, there was a sense of fear attached to other people, especially other teenagers. It also increased the sense of control that my parents had over me; before I was interested in spending time with other youth, there wasn’t much that I wanted, that my parents could actually provide, that I was motivated to work for, and our family was reaching a point of chaos that meant that there wasn’t much parental approval to work towards. So I was motivated to perform my duties at home purely to get out and see other youth. My parents kept me fearful and off balance by sometimes allowing this and sometimes taking away the privilege with no explanation. My father said that if I didn’t know the privilege was being taken away, maybe I needed to lose more privileges in order to learn to respect him.

The biggest problem I have with this control over social interactions is that it stifles the learning of social lessons.

It is a form of child maltreatment to teach a child to act in an abnormal way, and therefore a form of neglect to not teach them lessons that they will need to function in adult life. I simply didn’t get enough exposure to other people as a child and teenager, and the skewed value of other people and of social interactions meant that I didn’t learn how to be a friend. I didn’t know how long a visit with a friend should last, and I didn’t know how to see that a visit was reaching an end. In fact, it was so hard for me to get out that when I was out, I often overstayed my welcome. It also impacted my ability to build planning and decision making skills.

In their report titled “Psychological Maltreatment” in “Pediatrics”, Hibbard, Barlow, and MacMillan provide a table outlining six different categories of child maltreatment (find it here). According to this table, the simple act of confining a child and restricting their community social interactions is a form of maltreatment likely to result in social maladjustment. Under the heading of exploiting/corrupting, there are two descriptions that my parents fulfilled: “Modeling, permitting, or encouraging antisocial or developmentally inappropriate behavior” by not allowing me to develop appropriate social behavior, and “restricting/undermining psychological autonomy” by not providing opportunities for me to learn to plan and make decisions in social interactions with enough information.

Isolating children and not allowing them to interact with other children and youth is a form of psychological maltreatment. Not allowing children enough opportunities to learn how to behave in social situations and not providing them with opportunities to plan and make decisions in social situations is psychological maltreatment in the exploiting/corrupting category.

“Socialization” was a joke to my parents, as it was and is for many homeschooling apologists, but the different aspects of isolation are easily categorized as psychological maltreatment.

Hibbard, et al, state that psychological maltreatment may result in a child feeling that they are unloved or only valued for what they provide to the parent, even if the parent did not intend to cause harm. They state that the effects of this maltreatment can include problems with adult attachment, including attachment to their own children, and trouble with conflict resolution in adulthood.

If a woman is to have a career and friends of her own, she will need these skills. Even if one ascribes to the school of thought that the purpose of women is to get married and stay at home with children, it should be clear that this type of isolation will not result in girls growing into well-adjusted stay at home mothers. To succeed in such a role, women will need to have social skills, planning and decision making skills, conflict resolution skills, and good attachment in order to have good relationship with their husbands and children. If a woman is to engage in some type of out of home employment before getting married, these skills will vital in that setting as well.

Socialization is not a joke; it provides several essential skills for adult life in various settings. Isolating children and youth is not a joke, it is psychological abuse, and can have serious consequences for those who experience it.

Navigating the Justice System, Part Three: As a Young Adult

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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 June 12, 2014.

< Part Two

When I was about 17, I moved out.

Once it was truly clear to me that what happened in my home was abusive and not normal I decided to try to end the abuse for everyone. I started making regular calls to Children’s Aid on my father. I had to get help making these calls because Children’s Aid did not take my calls seriously because I was perceived as a disgruntled daughter (I was a disgruntled daughter, I suppose – but it didn’t negate what I had to say). There had already been multiple closed investigations on my family, and my parents presented as godly people who were just doing the best they could do with very little money and terribly rebellious children (although the social workers were always impressed with our obedience). I had help from guidance counsellors at my high school, and from the family I was staying with.

This process exacted a steep personal cost.

I had to relive what had happened constantly, and I worried that if this bid for freedom for all my younger siblings failed, and my parents found out, I would be cut off from them forever. My father had always threatened to pack everyone up and move to Mexico in the middle of the night, and I was afraid that if CAS called and invited themselves over for a pre-announced visit, my father would follow through on this threat and be forever protected by his friend-of-a-friend counterparts in Mexico. This situation caused a lot of pain for me. I had a lot of suicidal thoughts, and began engaging frequently in fairly serious self-harm, although I had done some self-harm even as a pre-teen before I knew that it was a thing. I have self-injury scars on my arms that will never go away.

My self-injury served as a tangible demonstration to those who were supporting me by calling CAS, that there was a real problem that needed to be fixed. I believe that some of the thinking was that maybe if they could get an intervention in the family home, they would be able to save my younger siblings from going through the same thing. It was kind of too late to save them from the pain, but at least they could end it.

CAS became convinced to take a closer look.

Once another investigation was finally launched, things moved quickly. There were a few meetings, and my dad was given the option of promising to not yell at my mother or physically punish the children (this may sound familiar). They found out that he chased teenagers with garden implements, and beat kids with dowel rods and broomsticks. They only wanted that to stop. He declined this option, so he ended up being removed from the property by CAS and police. He was taken to jail and charged with child abuse for his use of unreasonable corporal punishment. He was not allowed back on the family property because my mom was there with the kids (I had also moved home) and he wasn’t allowed to displace the family. We went to criminal court when I was 19. I had just started dating my now-husband, and going out for some lunch while at court was our first date. I testified, along with several of my siblings.

We were given victim support this time.

We testified much more clearly than we did when we were kids. We went for a few days. The judge was kind to us, and cleared the court room of anyone that we didn’t want to have there. They asked us questions kindly, and didn’t push us when it was hard. We only testified against my father, not against my mother. We decided as a group of teenagers that the priority was to get my father to answer for what he did, because what he did was much more serious than what my mom did, and my mom had not been physically abusive to my siblings in the time between my father’s arrest, and court. The result of those court proceedings is that my father took part in a plea deal, where he pled guilty to three counts in exchange for the other six (there are nine siblings) charges being dropped.

He was given a year of probation. He also had to continue going to court with my mom (family court, I believe) to work out issues of custody, but for him to get a say, he was supposed to file his own papers. He never did. He repeatedly attended court with no representation, or asked for adjournments to have more time to file papers. Eventually this ended and my mom pretty much ended up with custody and residency in the home, because of his inaction. My grandfather bought my father a car and a cell phone, and he has spent the past 7 years floating around between staying on his other property in Nova Scotia, and living with his like-minded friends in Ontario who allow him to live in their houses with their children, or to set up a shed or camper in their back yards.

He still has no concept that he did anything wrong at all.

End of series.

Navigating the Justice System, Part Two: When My Parents Went to Court

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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 February 2, 2014.

< Part One

This part of Navigating the Justice System deals with a time in my life when my parents went to court and I didn’t, but I am including it in the middle of a three part series since it hinges them together. Here is what happened when my parents went to court:

When I was about 11, we were living in Ontario, where we had moved to get away from the court proceedings in Nova Scotia. However, my parents had been ordered to appear back in court in Nova Scotia. We had been going a conservative church in Ontario, for about a few months to a year. My parents talked to some of their friends in the church, and the decision was made to “farm out” the kids to various families while my parents were away, for about 10 days. I was pretty excited about this, because I was always helping to look after my siblings, and I thought it could be a fun break for me. My parents sent my two close-in-age brothers to stay with a family on a farm, which they didn’t mind too much. They sent my next younger sister to stay with a family with a number of young children, with a daughter that was close to her age.

They didn’t consider that that daughter bullied my sister.

They sent me to an older couple with grown up children, along with the youngest two sisters. They took my youngest brother at the time with them. The two younger girls were very young, so they were not potty-trained and showed some signs of what I now know to be disrupted emotional development. (I would like to note here that these girls have grown up into wonderful young ladies). So the couple agreed to take them for the ten days only if I went there too, so I could change their diapers, and look after them. I suppose this wasn’t that much different from home life, but the lack of supervision at home meant I could make some of my own decisions and revel in some 11 year old laziness. While I was there, I had to do quite a bit of work. I washed their eggs for their egg business, got up before the girls so that I could change them and dress them before they disturbed the family, and usually got the girls their breakfast and did the dishes. I did laundry and other chores also, but I was always responsible for the girls too.

I was expected to keep the girls in the same room all the time and watch them. I don’t know what month it was, but it was some time in the summer, since we went outside at certain times too. The girls weren’t used to that kind of structure, since while my parents were extraordinarily controlling, they also had a notable lack of control in daily life, with no structure, no schedule, and the only rule really was to not upset the parents, and do everything they specifically demanded immediately. I think that this couple disapproved of my siblings’ behavior and my parents’ parenting style and methods, and decided that they could fix it. But it doesn’t work to take an 11 year old or even toddlers and suddenly change everything about how they do life in ten days. They talked to me about how I should behave and what I should be doing in daily life, and to respect my parents, but they also spoke negatively about my parents.

It was very confusing for me as an 11 year old. I knew that my parents were going back to court but I didn’t really understand it.

I kind of hoped that they would go to jail while they were there, but then I was afraid I would be stuck with this couple, raising my two siblings forever.

I had also been extensively isolated so I did not know how to function well around other people all the time, and they made fun of that. I was very awkward. I suppose I also showed signed of disrupted emotional development. My mom and the lady decided that I should keep a diary while I was there, but the lady read what I wrote every day, and then my mom read it when they returned. I felt like I had no privacy, so I only recorded what we ate, and when we went out for groceries.

I do not blame this couple, but it was after I returned home that I started to really experience depression. I didn’t want to go to church anymore, and I didn’t want to have friends. I still was forced to go to church, not that I tried to argue, it wasn’t optional. Being with this family really taught me what other people in the church thought of us, and I knew there was a good chance that everyone talked about us like that.

It also caused a great deal of conflict for me. On one hand, I was angry that they tried to impose so much structure, but on the other hand I realized that if I complied with the structure, it would be peaceful, and that was not how it was at home. Because there were no predictable rules at home, it could never be peaceful. I think as a child I wanted to have the best of both worlds: the comparative freedom of having no supervision at home, the power of being in charge when my parents were gone all the time, but also the peace in the presence of authority figures. The couple we stayed with never hit me or yelled at me or my siblings, just expressed “disappointment” if I didn’t live up to their expectations.

Being around this family 24/7 also really emphasized to me that I was socially awkward, and I felt like my actions and words were on display for constant scrutiny. It wasn’t even that I felt I couldn’t do anything right, but I didn’t even know what the right thing was. I think it was obvious to them that something was wrong in our family, and I wish that the couple had used that knowledge to get us some help, instead of becoming part of the oppression. Every week when we saw them at church after that, I felt exposed, like they knew something bad about me. They were disappointed because they thought I would have some sort of connection with them after I went home, but I didn’t. This experience really reinforced for me that adults had all the power and that no one would help me, and that there was something fundamentally wrong with me. That I was the problem.

My parents were finished with court and didn’t go back to court. I don’t really know what the resolution to that was. I just know that it was a terrifying time for me, and I don’t think it was right that I was put through the knowledge that they were going to court, and that it had to do with parenting, but I wasn’t made privy to the resolution. It also makes me very suspicious about the outcome. I also think it wasn’t right for the church to have that window into our family problems and not do anything about it. I know it should be surprising, as it is very difficult to risk being the whistleblower when surrounded by others who do not seem to recognize the problem.

But if any one of those three families who got glimpses into the mental health status of my siblings and I had chosen to do something, it could have saved us from the six years of suffering that was to come.

Part Three >

Navigating the Justice System, Part One: Alone at 9 Years Old

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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 January 18, 2014.

Trigger warning: discussion of child maltreatment and its consequences.

If this is the first Feminist in Spite of Them post you have read, please consider reading this either before or after.

When I was about 9, my parents were investigated by Children’s Aid. Social workers came out to talk to us. They met with us and found out that my parents spanked as punishment — which made sense since my parents had posted “The 21 Rules of This House” next to the dining room table. They came back a few times and spoke to each of us children. My parents homeschooled and they questioned whether we were getting an adequate education and whether abuse would be identified easily enough without regular contact with other people. One day they came with police cars and two police men and took most of us to the police station and interviewed us on video. My parents left the youngest with friends and came to the police station too but we didn’t see them all day.

I don’t know what my siblings said in their interviews, but I had always been taught to be very honest so I answered all their questions honestly, which was hard because I had also been carefully taught to not divulge family business to strangers. The information I gave outlined clearly that we were spanked, when we disobeyed or showed a bad attitude, with an object that was somewhat anthropomorphised in our home: “the rod”. My parents also practiced time-outs like shutting children outside in the evening for several hours for not eating all their dinner. I trusted that my parents were acting appropriately, since that is what they told me when they did it, so I presented it as fair and reasonable, and did not see a reason to hide anything. They told me what abuse was and asked if I was abused. I responded that technically we were because of the punishment methods but it was not abuse because it was Biblical. We were sent home with our parents. They asked my parents to promise to not spank and they were very resistant.

A while later, we went to court. I went to court three separate times. As far as I can remember, I went to family court one day, and then later on I testified two days at a higher or different level of court across the hall.

I don’t really understand the reasoning that led to this situation, but I was interrogated in court by the prosecutor in family court as a reluctant witness to my own parents’ abuse.  I testified that I loved my parents and I wanted to be spanked when I disobeyed. I wasn’t quite sure about that but that was what my parents and their lawyer and all their friends told me to say. Please note that I was sent home with my parents after court and although I spent a few days away from my parents they were able to choose were I went, and they chose a family friend who reinforced my parents’ beliefs. At least two of my brothers may have also testified in that court. I believe that my parents and their lawyer offered us up to testify, but I am not sure. Part of the reason I believe that I was there by the choice of my parents is because we did not receive any kind of victim witness counselling or preparation, and I don’t think that my parents could have declined on my behalf if I was there as a victim of their actions. They should have not been allowed to decline in any case.

I may as well have been alone the whole time. My parents were absorbed in their case, their lawyer treated me as a pawn, and anyone else involved were concerned that my parents might be punished for their actions. I am unclear on the outcome of that case, but my mother tells me that the judge threw that case out but that children’s services tried again from a different angle and that was why there was another prosecutor and case across the hall.

In that court, I was more reluctant to answer questions, things had changed for the worse at home since the first court and I was far more unhappy. We weren’t being schooled anymore, there was another new baby on the way, and there was more yelling and beating instead of rational spankings. I was not happy at home anymore. My father was sitting only a few feet in front of where I sat in the stand, and frowned every time I spoke. I had gotten in trouble for some things I had said in the first court, and my parents were so incensed by what two of my brothers said in the first court that they somehow made sure they did not testify again. My answers were inconsistent so the judge decided to bring out the taped interview taken at the police station that I mentioned earlier.

I was very afraid of what would happen if my father saw that video I had made at the police station outlining his punishment methods, and I knew I had to go home with him.

I protested persistently, begging the judge to not play the video, but I couldn’t tell him why, with my dad sitting a few feet away. I was removed from the courtroom by the bailiff. He was this hugely intimidating man and I was really afraid of him, but he was actually really nice and expressed his outrage about the whole thing, even though I didn’t understand what he meant at the time. He took me to a small room with my mom and a friend of hers.

The judge showed the video to the courtroom, and the bailiff brought me back when it was done. The judge asked me what my story was, if I wanted to stick to my very inconsistent story of a loving family, or if I stood by the police interview that outlined what legally qualified as abuse, depending on interpretation. I didn’t know what to do and I was very traumatized by the experience, to the point that I cannot remember how it ended and I got out of there. I am not sure if the judge decided to discount my testimony or if he took the whole scene as evidence of abuse.

The truth is, I was abused. I was told what to think and how to think it. I was a somewhat compliant child, but I witnessed my other siblings rebel with terrible consequences. I was afraid of what was going to happen all the time, and it felt like I couldn’t breathe sometimes.

Being put into a situation where I had to defend the actions of my own parents created a claustrophobic conflict for me.

Even before court, I wasn’t happy. I wasn’t treated well. I had to give up my own wishes all the time even when it wasn’t reasonable, I had to help take care of younger children, I had to bargain for my own education as a child under ten. Periodically my parents’ beliefs completely changed and most of my possessions would be disposed of because they didn’t comply with the new beliefs.  I walked around with suicide notes in my pocket. We had to ride around in a big van with no windows and couldn’t see out, so I always thought we were going to die, and I was ok with that at 9 years old. Life was too hard and too long, and there was nothing good.

After court was over and my parents packed us out and secretly moved us to another province, everything got much worse. By moving away from the child protection case they moved away from all consequences and started over again in a more conservative church and a more isolated property. I blamed myself for not somehow making sure we got sent to foster care during the court episode, and I spent my pre-adolescent years as a self-harming desperate little adult in a child’s body.

For more reading on my parents’ beliefs, please click here.

There is an outrageous lack of support for children who are put in the position of navigating the justice system, and there is not a great deal of information on the consequences for the children. If you would like to add to the conversation in any way I welcome your comments.

Part Two >

The Psychological Cost Of Not Being Provided For

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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 3, 2013.

Children not getting what they want certainly does not constitute child maltreatment, and historically isn’t uncommon. The societal construct of childhood has changed several times in last few centuries, with ebbs and flows in the level of freedoms, rights, and responsibilities children have at various ages.Children have not always had childhoods. However, children have always depended on their parents to provide for them. Sometimes children who are not cared for are removed from their parents, and historically some children who were not cared for died. Children who are not provided for, know.

It is a painful realization that through choices made by parents of their own free will, a child was not given what was needed.

My siblings and I had more responsibilities and less rights than is considered typical in current society. Part of this including not really having our own possessions, and not being given new belongings except for a few
notable occasions. We were not entitled to our own space, in fact having a right to possessions and space was contraindicated because of my parents’ belief that having too many rights would make a child feel entitled and cause corruption.

It isn’t the loss of possessions ‘that could have been’ that is the problem. The loss factor in not being “provided for” lies in the reason it happened. In the case of my family, there are several reasons that we lived an essentially impoverished lifestyle. My father did not work regularly, although he did have several different jobs for short periods of times over the years. There were simply too many children in the home to properly care for on the child tax credit. The choices my parents made, including various business attempts, meant that even when there was money, it was not spent in a way that contributed to the well-being of the individuals in the family, or the family as a whole.

My father believed that he should not have a job in an organization where a woman was in a position over him in the company hierarchy in any way, even if he never interacted with them. This belief came into play over time, as he further and further restricted his job options by becoming more strict over the years about what his interaction with women could be in the workplace. It had originally started with not being able to be a peer with a women or have an immediate supervisor who a women, and then expanded to include most organizations by default. Not having a job most of the time naturally resulted in not having enough money to provide for the family. My mother never worked because my parents believed that her place was in the home being a homemaker.

My parents disapproved of welfare, and in hindsight I realize that they would certainly have not been eligible for welfare, given that two able bodied people cannot sit at home and receive welfare.

They did receive the Canadian child tax benefit, and when you have 9 children under the age of 18, it turns out that that benefit is not an insignificant amount of money – still not enough to properly care for that many children, but there was more money than we were led to believe as children. This money was spent mainly on groceries and “business expenses”, and on housing costs, however my family never had very high housing costs because my parents owned properties and stacked many children into very small spaces. They also kept expenses under control by gate-keeping the use of heat and lights.

My parents had a number of businesses over the years, so many that it is difficult to keep track of all of them.  There was a furnace selling business, in which my father spent a great deal of money on pamphlets and a floor model and a trailer to pull the floor model (it was the size of a garden shed), entry fees to farm shows, and advertisements, and in the end sold less than half a dozen over two years. There was a wood selling business in which my father bought chain saws and other equipment like protective pants and helmets and gloves, and then piled firewood up near the road and behind the house and sold it to passersby. The money earned through this simply could never pay for the amount of labour (child labour and his own) and start up costs. We did not burn wood in our own house.

There were yearly attempts at market gardens. These were family exercises, in which we all went out in the spring (homeschooling did not interfere with this) and dug up the garden by hand and with a rototiller that my dad spent thousands of dollars on to maintain every year – for some reason it never worked and he had to take it for servicing literally several times per year. We then put about $100 worth of seeds in the ground. Most of it never came up. My sisters and I tried to water the garden with buckets, but we couldn’t water an acre of garden by ourselves. Depending on the year and what stage of child-bearing my mother was in, some of it was picked and some of it was left to rot in the garden – my father had always lost interest by this point and was off working on some other ‘home business’. We never really sold much. We sometimes paid for a farmer’s market booth and tried to sell there, however never earned as much as was spent on seeds. We also preserved some of it through canning and freezing.

Because of all these financial decisions, my parents did not provide the basic necessities to us. Instead they depended on the charity of acquaintances, even for such dubious items as hand-me-down underwear. Underwear for children, even 9 children, is very cheap, but my parents decided to ask other families to give us their underwear that was no longer wanted. And they did. They were also given ratty dresses and shoes and pants and shirts for the boys. We sometimes wanted new items, but we were shamed for not being grateful to the church families for giving us their castoffs, and were forced to wear the cast offs to church and thank the parent and the child who gave the clothes personally.

My parents always seemed to be able to provide for their own needs.

My mother wore hand me down clothes sometimes, but usually other women made clothes for her. My father always bought his own clothes, likely from Salvation Army, but it did not go unnoticed that he was allowed to not prostrate himself to others and beg for clothes. They also seemed to be able to squeeze in date nights, even when they were barely speaking to each other and we were on a steady rotation of oatmeal, rice, and rice. They sometimes bought steaks and had them after we went to bed. They always had coffee in the mornings, even when they couldn’t afford anything else.

It was very hard for us to see other children get some of what they wanted and everything they needed, and even to see our own parents have what they wanted, while we were not allowed to have what we wanted. When we did have treats or get new things, we hoarded them and saved them and bragged to our siblings. We would take as much as we could of free things. Our parents tried hard to make sure that we viewed desiring things as a sin. Even expressing a desire for something was enough to put it completely out of reach. We were taught to put ourselves down for wanting things. We were taught that others were entitled to what they wanted, but we were not. Because we had to take what others no longer wanted, we felt like the trash of the church. We were taught that what we wanted was not important.

The psychological cost of not being provided for was a loss of self-worth. It took many years to realize that we are worth the same as others. It was quite an experience going shopping for what we wanted in the mall. Now that I work full time, and I get cheques regularly, it is still a weird feeling to see that we have enough money for what I want – not to mention what I need. I sometimes have to force myself to see that it is ok to buy a few new shirts even if I still have some. The decision to withhold basic necessities of life and let children depend on the charity of others, by choice, is intrinsically harmful and teaches children that the world is a dangerous place.

Teaching children that they are not as important as others is self-serving and abusive. 

Forgiveness and Power

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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 July 29, 2013.

Over the course of my life I have been instructed to forgive so many times. Ironically, the people who were telling me to forgive were also the people who spent a good deal of time telling me that in reality there was nothing to forgive, or that no wrong doing had occurred. Technically I think this means I am off the hook anyways. But in reality, there was wrong doing from people in my life who were supposed to protect me.

I now believe that forgiveness is a religious concept. I believe it was created to control people who have been wronged, by investing them with an equal amount of responsibility for the relationship, so that if they do not choose to forgive and rebuild, they have at least half the blame. After all, if you are a person in power, you can do anything. All you need to do is make sure the recipient of wrong doing feels guilt if they do not choose to trust you again.

I think this can come in so handy for rogue religious leaders and fathers in isolated families. A fear can be fostered over decades that the recipient needs to be open to the idea of allowing similar offences over and over again in the name of forgiveness. The recipient can be handled as many times as needed to allow the cycle to continue.

There is definitely something to gain if you are already in a position of power. The person in power is already in a position to justify their own actions based on whatever act of god or man put them in power in the first place. I am speaking of power in the small scale, but when a person is in this type of power position, it is easy for them to lose sight of their own place in the world. They can become the king of their own little castle, as it were. They need the concept of forgiveness to exist, so that when they violate the rights of those they control, they can keep that control by inflicting guilt on the recipient.

I do think that there is some freedom in moving forward, which is often confused with forgiveness. It is a totally different concept in my opinion. In my opinion, moving forward is more about recognizing that those who violate your rights are choosing to do so, and have no reason to change in a vacuum. A recipient of wrong doing does not incur responsibility, but if they are going to take any kind of action, ending the ability of the person in power to retain the cycle of control is not a bad idea.

Sometimes the only way to break the cycle is to end the relationship. People often seem so horrified by this idea, but why should someone stick around and allow their rights to be violated over and over again in the name of a religious concept that only benefits the wrong-doer? If someone has been traumatized by their own parents, the options are not simply to stick around and try to maintain the relationship or else live in a cess-pool of bitterness and hurt. There is a whole other option out there. You can walk away. You can choose to surround yourself with people who are not interested in violating your rights. When you walk away, you can leave the hurt there too, because you are leaving the source. It isn’t as easy as it sounds, but everyone has a right to live their own lives, regardless of wrong doing in the past. This takes time but no one has to submit themselves to a proven risk.