I was reading Libby Anne’s series of posts about the HSLDA’s facilitation of child abuse very carefully (with cheerleader pom poms in hand, celebrating that someone finally said this much-needed stuff out loud and in such a well-researched way) and I ran across something that annoyed me. A commenter named Steve P. Steve said:

“Will a neglectful parent homeschool? He will not. Doing so would require an expenditure of a great deal of time and energy on his child; it will involve hard work. It is likely also to involve sacrificing an income.

Neglectful parents will happily let their children fall into the public school system. Doing so will require no effort, it is free, and it gets the child out of his hair for several hours a day.

So if the government is looking for a group to monitor so that it can detect neglect and correct that neglect, homeschoolers are a very stupid and wasteful choice. It is far more likely to detect parental neglect by looking at groups where parental neglect is more likely to occur.”

First, as someone whose neglectful parents did homeschool, I kinda started laughing and shaking my head that anyone could apparently believe (and perpetuate) this sort of foolishness, but it does seem that some (too many, in fact) do… So I figured that today I’d say something about motivations for homeschooling, a bit about what irresponsible homeschooling can look like (a brief story about being taught multiplication), and finish up with what some sensible regulations might look like.

Homeschooling Motivations
In college I had a political science professor who said that there were three reasons to vie for leadership – power, prestige, or to avoid rule by the incompetent. People like Steve apparently assume that homeschooling parents are, as a whole, motivated by that third reason. Obviously I think that is a grave error, and one that simply makes no sense to me, right off the bat. It just doesn’t pass the smell test. Different people have different motivations after all, and not all people who act like they are doing something good (or who truly believe that they are) are in fact doing something good. Perhaps this reality seems extra stark to me because I was raised by parents who chose to homeschool for the wrong reasons.

While my parents certainly made the argument that it was all to make sure we had “better” than what we’d get in a public school, I can say from growing up in the middle of it, that that definitely wasn’t the case in real life. If that had been their true motivation I expect that they would have at least attempted to rise above the level of negligence that was standard in my homeschooling experience with them, and they would have felt some nagging sense of responsibility preventing them from being grossly incompetent stewards of our education. That didn’t happen.

My parents decided to homeschool not because they truly cared to give us a quality education (although if they had tried, they probably could have done considerably better than the local public schools, with us being in an inner city New Orleans school district) but because they were afraid of everything. They were religiously indoctrinated in a way that seemed very cultish, leaving them fearful of anything outside of their little religious bubble. Parents stuck in a toxic cycle and motivated by fear like that simply aren’t “giving up” free time to “homeschool” anymore than someone with agoraphobia is giving up social time to be housebound or someone with OCD is giving up free time to check the locks 20 times before bed.

People like my parents get into homeschooling because they have a problem, not because they have found a solution. Mine never solved the problem and the lack of regulations allowed them to ignore it. That is not okay.

Homeschool Math Experience
A while back I’d put up post of some old photos, pics of me when I was a kid. The reason I did this is to show how things generally “looked ok” on the outside. My parents covered up and just pretended that they did things that they weren’t actually doing but were supposed to do. They went through the charade. They made us kids go through the motions as well. They were pretty careful to make sure that it didn’t get caught looking like what it actually was. We were kept indoors during other kids’ school hours but there were no school hours for us, at set times or otherwise. In fact, every now and then when my Mom decided to sit us all in a circle to teach us something, it always seemed to be in the afternoon, when we’d otherwise be able (or even ordered) to be outdoors.

Generally we were only taught things in order to be able to assume domestic roles and do chores around the house. I became quite good at diaper-changing, babysitting, and cooking long before I ever had a lesson on history or geography in my life. I remember the time the most intense official “education” phase occurred in our home, and the only reason my Mom did this (it was a pretty unusual experience to even be told we had to do “schoolwork”) was because in one of his brief (and rather traumatizing) personal forays into homeschooling instruction, my Dad had handwritten some multiplication flash cards for me. He had told me to memorize them but did not recognize that I had not yet been exposed to the underlying numerical concept that multiplication represented or even been taught how to memorize things. As you definitely need to know those two things first – the purpose and the process to follow (something any teacher worth their salt would pick up on), it ended badly, with me not memorizing them or understanding the process at all, and then being quizzed, failing, being called stupid, slapped in the face, grounded, and having all the cards thrown at me, at which point my Dad (thankfully) exited the room, never to return to the topic, ordering me to shut up, quit crying, and pick up the cards. After that he “delegated” it to my Mom to teach us multiplication. She had had at least had a few elementary education classes in college before dropping out, but she wasn’t much better at it than my Dad, to be honest. She just brought a different set of issues.

My Mom penned some cheesy Christian-based “math songs” to try and get us to learn multiplication and had all of us sit around in a circle to sing them. She has some pretty serious obsessive-compulsive, perfectionistic tendencies and even the over-enthusiastic glitter in her eye as she (in a faux humble manner) unveiled these “math songs” as musical masterpieces made me feel ill. I hated it all right away. I have mostly blocked the horrendous sing-songy little rhymes out, but snippets of them still float around in my head sometimes, such as “3, 6, 9, stars are part of God’s design.” None of us kids wanted to sing this garbage, so she generally screamed and nagged at us to get us even sitting in a circle in the same room in the first place. By the time we were gathered, our patience was as depleted as hers and so we’d whine about it, the little kids would act up, us older ones would start to fight with each other, and generally I’d roll my eyes, call it stupid, and flat out object to participating at all, saying I wanted to go read Gulliver’s Travels or something instead.

The thing about me as a child (and me to this day, really) is that I was a quick learner but also an independent one with a strong personality. I imagine if my parents had taken me to a psychiatrist (if they had believed in such things, that is) I might very well have been diagnosed with Oppositional Defiant Disorder or something. I was the worst kind of kid to get in a battle of wills with, as I would rarely capitulate, and yet they always did get into these battles. I dug in my heels and sometimes honestly decided I’d rather die than give in. I was simply not at all inclined to follow orders if they were given in a disrespectful tone, although if someone asked me nicely I’d do anything for someone.

Indicating that I did not want to do “math songs” and had no intention of doing so resulted in more screaming by my Mom about us kids’ “selfishness” and “stinkin’ bad attitudes,” her horrible screeching voice echoing around the room. When she forced me to stay and participate, I (who am still to this day not very good with arbitrary authority) would generally boycott or protest. I’d either fold my arms and refuse to say a word or I would sing it and leave out the references to God (after I had told her I didn’t believe in God at age 12, she actively pushed the religious stuff on me even more, every chance she got), rendering her furious. She’d scream that since I was the “oldest” I need to “set a good example,” and she’d threaten to get the red stick and give me a spanking and a “loss of privileges,” which meant her stealing away or forbidding me to have one of my favorite things – generally books, music, or a favorite food – for a period of time. I’d get absolutely furious sitting there and the more threats she made, the more I would not, could not, participate, even if I knew it would end in a beating. After all, which is more important, honor and integrity or education? I did not learn math from her, same as my sister next in age did not learn how to read, as she was faced with the same kind of tsunami of controlling, perfectionistic, headache-inducing negativity on that topic.

So it isn’t some dichotomy where homeschooling is good and everything else is bad, like some people such as Steve F. try to boil it down to. It was certainly hidden in my family home though, pretended otherwise. As I was actually the only one who learned how to read in our practically-nonexistent-from-the-start homeschool, my Dad bragged to church friends about me reading classic literature like Charles Dickens (books my Grandad sent, none my parents ever got me) and he never mentioned the academic prowess (or lack thereof) of my sister or brother next in age, who were both functionally illiterate.

Ultimately, despite my Grandad’s intense tutoring help before I entered public school (we started at addition and subtraction, went all the way through fractions and long division, and briefly touched on the FOIL method with variable-free algebraic equations), I had frequent crying meltdowns when trying to do math and when I started public school I failed 9th grade algebra. The idea of putting letters in there where numbers were supposed to go just blew my mind. Even after a remedial high school math class with the nicest teacher (Ms. Tucker, a Pentacostal woman with long hair and long skirts who was calm and gentle and truly helped me so much!), the two other math classes (Algebra II and Geometry) it took to graduate from high school, the course requirements for a bachelors degree (in liberal arts, which I partially chose for the lower math requirement) and the master’s degree I have today, remnants of the educational damage, the gaps, persists.

Abuse and neglect in an educational setting (public school, private school, or homeschool) can follow you years down the road. I still count on my fingers to add and subtract and I still double check my addition five or six times because half the time it’s wrong. Part of it might be natural inclination (I am a “words person” after all) but I am thankful I don’t have any more math classes to take because in addition to struggling with the basics, I battled horrible math-related test anxiety where I’d get headaches, a racing heartbeat, and often just mentally go blank no matter how much I had studied. I have never made an “A” in a math class, always just hoped to even get a passing grade, and was thrilled with B’s. The first time I took the GRE for grad school I had math anxiety for it too and wiped away tears when I saw that I’d scored in the 7th percentile, which meant only 7% of people taking that test did worse than me. My 25 year old brother, currently in college part time, has this math anxiety issue too.

Sensible Regulations
People like Steve P. need a wake up call. They need to get the memo to quit sticking their heads in the sand and saying everyone is dedicated, that only awesome parents self-select into homeschooling. Saying that all homeschooling parents have the right motivations, are making laudable voluntary sacrifices of time and money to homeschool, and never deserve to be questioned or held accountable to any minimum standards does absolutely no favors to anyone (including those people who are doing it right) but particularly does a disservice to children stuck in situations like I was growing up and there are too many who’ve had a similar experience.

We need sensible regulations so that only parents who are capable, trustworthy with children, and doing it for the right reasons are the ones legally allowed to do so. What do I see as sensible? Well, homeschool registration in all states, no sex offenders permitted to homeschool, and no people with less than a GED allowed to homeschool would certainly be nice for starters. Then there should be some outside expert viewing of an end of year portfolio or a standardized test (or both), so parents who decide to homeschool can’t shirk or botch the job like mine did without being held accountable, knowing before they even go there that outside eyes will be looking. There needs to be an independent state-level appeals process for parents (so that there is recourse in the event of any anti-homeschooling bias) as well as remediation plans put in place with a stricter level of oversight (and more outside help) made available to families where the test scores are quite low or portfolios notably bad. Then, if after remediation help, they’re still not doing their job, do what should be done with any consistently failing school – shut it down and let the kids attend elsewhere.

Facilitation, field trips, lots of planned family time, and often the forgoing of a career are what real homeschooling parents give in order to give their child the best. Not all homeschooling parents are dedicated though. Some want to control and abuse, have a power trip, and others want their friends to think they are winning some parenting award that they haven’t done the legwork to earn.

I think with a sensible level of regulations, lazy parents who know they’ll be held accountable might choose not to homeschool the first place, as real homeschooling (or unschooling) does take lots of work. However, people like Steve P. do a grave disservice to homeschooling kids when they claim that people with no standards set for them are never or rarely like my parents in the homeschooling world. Reality just doesn’t bear that out.