Instead of just discussing problems, I have a few simple ideas for solutions:
Thankfully some of us who grew up in toxic homeschooling environments were able to become educated people in a position to speak out against this stuff happening to others. Many others are not so lucky. Understand that even those of us now doing decently and “passing as normal” may carry a lot of shame and anxiety about a lack of education or deficiencies in certain subjects or popular culture. So if someone confides in you that they do not know much about a topic, let them know you do not judge them or think they are “stupid.” Ask them what they did learn instead and I guarantee you the answer won’t be “nothing.” Also, if you are in a position to do so, there is nothing wrong with offering to help grown people catch up on a subject area you are proficient in. Even if you aren’t so hot in it yourself, learning together is an excellent option. They can always say no, but they might say yes. Quite possibly no one has asked them this before, and they will be glad to know you care, whatever their decision.
There are two distinct branches of homeschooling – the kind you’ve seen might not be the kind other people have. To overgeneralize, there’s the “inclusive” model (generally hippie, left wing, libertarian, freedom-seeking for all individuals – adults and children) and the “exceptional” model (usually socially conservative Christians wanting to live away from aspects of society they feel are unchristian, with a focus on faith, tradition, and family-based education). I don’t have a problem with either, but the homeschoolers groups created by each often look very different from one another. Even in very small, rural communities this division into two distinct groups still seems to happen.
The inclusive type will often have more collective co-op style education, may be part of a public school or charter school home education program, and actively facilitate peer-to-peer connection and group efforts among the students.
The exclusive type is a lot bigger and more widespread but often leaves academics entirely to the individual parents, preferring to connect over sports, field trips, political campaigning, and gender-based socialization such as mother-and-daughter groups. Kids, even teens, rarely are encouraged to hang out with one another unsupervised. Many of the homeschoolers groups for the “exceptional” models also require people who join to sign a statement of faith and often have a gendered, explicitly anti-feminist dress code and strict code of conduct norms.
Be Aware of Radicalization
While it can certainly be nice to be around like-minded people, unfortunately this often also radicalizes some, causes them to lose perspective. Keeping up with the Joneses in a statement of faith homeschoolers group often starts to look like “my daughters only wear skirts.” “Ok, now mine do too. And they also don’t date. Courtship only in our house.” This race to the bottom is an easy way to start the Christian version of “Taliban-lite” in a homeschool community. So be careful of it, try to be sensible, and understand that not all homeschooling models or support structures are alike in fit or quality. Just because you have one that is awesome doesn’t mean the one the next town over isn’t insane and vice versa.
If someone you know is being radicalized, try not to confront them outright as you will likely only get stubbornness and suspicion. Instead be their friend in a general sort of way, complimenting them when they accomplish things you feel are positive, letting your kids play with their kids, being there when they need a hug or a helping hand. Loneliness and feeling friendless in mainstream society are one reason people get sucked into some of this wacky stuff in the first place and then also why they have serious trouble getting out if it gets real bad. Being a friend in this situation doesn’t mean you have to agree with everything they do or put yourself or your family in danger. It means showing love, consideration, and kindness, reminding them that not all “good people” live that way.
Understand Not All Good News is Good News
Right now there are some support structures for very conservative Christian homeschooling that are advocating rather extreme positions and perpetuating inaccuracies about homeschooling in general and what their organizations are doing and trying to do. I have seen how the National Home Education Research Institute (NHERI), Brian Ray’s HSLDA-affiliated one-man research operation, can easily feed journalists a bunch of statistical foolishness passed off as rigorous academic study, but they cannot honestly trumpet their latest “excellent” cherry-picked homeschooling statistics and compare them to general data on those “terrible” public schools.
So even though it probably feels good to proclaim some “win” for homeschoolers, wherever it comes from, we need to recognize that when someone does so inaccurately, when we are silent because the lie reflects positively on us, it has a dark side. Letting that continue is being complicit in turning a blind eye to those homeschool kids who are so mistreated, isolated, and oppressed that they have never known they were entitled to have a voice at all. It is inaccurate and disingenuous to do this, and if we really care about homeschooling and homeschoolers, every time a careless person uses this NHERI “data” without caveats we should be sending letters to the editor demanding a correction.
Don’t Support Fundamentalist Orgs
As long as Christian homeschoolers groups continue to pay dues to wolf-in-sheeps-clothing organizations like HSLDA, attend seminars set up by the likes of Bill Gothard, and purchase curriculum from organizations like Vision Forum, those are the people who will continue to run things, continue to advocate a toxic vision for homeschooling, and disseminate twisted “facts.” There only will be more oh-so-similar stories of abuse in homeschooling. If you want homeschooling to really be “better” than other educational options, then do your part to make that a reality. Repudiate these fundamentalist homeschooling organizations and their aims, spend your money and time with responsible service providers, and tell your friends to do the same.