Beyond the Easy Answers

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CC image courtesy of Flickr, autan.
CC image courtesy of Flickr, autan.

Earlier this month LA Weekly’s Catherine Wagley published an article for JSTOR Daily about abuse within the Christian homeschooling movement. The article has impressive depth and nuance and I recommend it to those interested in homeschooling issues.

Wagley interviewed me for the article. The interview happened last summer so it was half a year between the time of the interview and the time of publication. I forgot most of the questions she asked me. One of the quotations she used from our interview stood out to me:

“We’re trying to look at the patterns,” said Stollar, HA’s co-founder. He thinks exposing the power relationships and abuses is the only way to keep them from continuing. “These issues, they’re not specific to homeschooled people. They’re related to the problematic way society in general deals with domestic abuse and sexual abuse.”

This stood to me because it is a point that I consider truly vital to the work done by HARO and our narrative-sharing platform Homeschoolers Anonymous (HA). It is also a significant point of misunderstanding between HARO and HA and our critics.

Our critics often think that HARO as an organization believes that homeschooling is inherently problematic. Or they think that HARO believes homeschooling done by Christians is inherently problematic. Or they think that HARO believes homeschooling done by fundamentalists of any stripe is inherently problematic. 

Yet the problems that HA addresses — and the solutions we are looking for through HARO — cannot and should not be reduced to “fundamentalism,” “fundamentalist Christianity,” or even “homeschooling.” I have seen homeschooling done in both amazing and destructive ways. I have seen Christians homeschool their kids both successfully and unsuccessfully. And I have seen fundamentalists homeschool their children both constructively and destructively. 

Yes, there are homeschooled children who cut themselves with razors because fundamentalist beliefs have led them to have no other outlet for their pain. But there are homeschooled children who bear the scars of self-hate who grew up in homes untouched by Bill Gothard and Christian Patriarchy, who never knew those names until they were adults and engaged with the HA community. Some of these kids grew up in moderate Christian homes, but some grew up in secular homes.

This is why, in my presentation “Facing Our Fears,” I said that, “The wheels of abuse and neglect in homeschooling are driven by much more than Patriarchy and Legalism; those systems are but a few of the wheel’s parts. All these problems are connected. They involve valuing ideas over children.”

It is the convenient, lazy route to blame every problem on one person or one idea: to say it is all Doug Phillips’ fault, that Quiverfull ideology is responsible, or that the Christian Reconstructionist movement is to blame. But whatever the problem is, I promise you I can find it somewhere else within another homeschooling family or subculture, too. If the problem is an eating disorder, we can find eating disorders outside of Vision Forum followers. If the problem is child rape, we can find that outside of Quiverfull families. If the problem is a high control home environment, we can find those outside of Christian Reconstructionism.

None of this means that Doug Phillips, Quiverfull ideology, or Christian Reconstructionism are innocent or safe. None of this means that those people or ideas have no impact on children’s eating disorders, abuse experiences, or home environments. What it means, simply, is if we want to take comprehensively take on problems like eating disorders, abuse experiences, or home environments, we need to think bigger.

By thinking bigger, I mean that we must avoid the temptation to think that these problems are not systemic to our society in general because of the way we treat children, education, child abuse, and mental health. Non-homeschoolers want to blame these problems on homeschooling; moderate homeschoolers want to blame these problems on extremist homeschoolers. While certainly there are valid arguments to be made about how homeschooling and extremism can contribute to abuse and mental illness, it is important to go one step deeper and grab the roots of the problem, not just the trunk. If we are only blaming homeschooling or one ideology like Christian Patriarchy or a couple of leaders like Gothard and Phillips, we are missing the patterns that will create new forces — new forces that will reproduce the exact same problems, albeit in different forms.

Nicholas Ducote, HA’s co-founder, grew up in a home that adhered to Bill Gothard’s ATI program. I did not. I grew up listening to secular music and did not even hear Gothard’s name until the end of high school. Yet Nicholas and I both have approached this project from shared experiences. We both saw pain reflected in many of our homeschooled peers’ faces — but when we started, we saw that pain from different angles. Ducote saw the damage wrought by ideology — he saw how fundamentalist Christian ideologies wrecked havoc on his own family and many other families. Whereas I saw the damage wrought by practice — how turning a blind eye to self-injury and substance abuse within the high-performance environment of speech and debate was hurting children.

Where our experiences intersect, and have now merged, is our understanding that ultimately it is how communities and parents respond to the pain that is probably the most universal problem. Yes, Christian Patriarchy creates problems. And yes, putting children on impossible pedestals is a problem. But what unifies these diverse experiences is when communities and parents are ignorant or ill-prepared to recognize the problems when they appear and respond to the problems in healthy and sensitive ways. 

We may never be able to convince the homeschooling movement to give up certain ideologies and practices. What we can do, however, is convince as many homeschooling communities and parents as possible to educate and equip themselves with compassion and knowledge so that they can help struggling children and parents. We can, for example, give homeschooling communities and parents the tools to identify, understand, and respond to self-injury. We can give homeschooling communities and parents the tools to fight child abuse in their midst. We can give homeschooling communities and parents the tools to think reflexively on the import and meaning of self-injury and child abuse within their respective contexts.

These steps are essential to HARO’s vision of “Renewing and transforming homeschooling from within.” They are essential to making homeschooling a children-first movement. And ultimately, they have nothing to do with fundamentalism or homeschooling. They are best practices that can dramatically improve the lives of children everywhere — which is exactly why homeschoolers need to take them seriously.

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Author: R.L. Stollar

R.L. Stollar is the Executive Director of Homeschool Alumni Reaching Out.