This is a post for homeschooling’s “old guard,” the people who first started homeschooling and unschooling back in the day. Writing this post has been hard to do. I do not want to make enemies of the old guard unschoolers and homeschoolers. I just want them to do the right thing. Sadly some of the people that seem to be fighting against dealing with the issues at hand are people who I think should be on my side already.
They sure don’t seem to be on the side of homeschool kids and former homeschool kids as a population though and that’s what I don’t get. You have certain people like Shay Seaborne of Homeschooling is Legal (I don’t mean to single you out, Shay – you just provided a good direct example) who are “old guard unschoolers and homeschoolers” who profess to be all about children’s rights, who are pushing back against the HSLDA monstrosity, and who have signed the petition going around to get HSLDA to address child abuse in homeschooling, but then they go on a former homeschool blogger’s site and say things like this:
In what world do you find this acceptable or accurate? This kind of commentary totally could go on my list of 20 things not to say in response to a homeschool horror story and it obviously needs to stop right away. The reason you don’t hear about this kind of abuse in Texas or Arkansas is the same reason you don’t hear about it in Louisiana, my home state. It’s because it’s silenced, not because it doesn’t exist. It kind of boggles my mind that people who have been championing unschooling and homeschooling would ever believe such things themselves, much less think saying such things to former homeschool kids speaking out about abuse is okay. It just seems so out-of-touch and tone deaf to me. Then I remember that the old guard is coming at it from an entirely different perspective (they chose to do homeschooling, we just had it happen to us) plus there’s the generational divide. We obviously need to bridge some of those gaps, but first I think the old guard needs to have a crucial confrontation with some hard truths before we are able to even begin thinking about being on the same page.
Please understand that I am not trying to play the blame game here, but rather trying to start dialogue that can potentially lead to a reconciliation and recovery process. The first step is admitting that there is a problem (some of you *ahem Shea* apparently haven’t made that step yet) and the second step is taking stock of what factors led to this mess. This process is all difficult and awkward (and so worthwhile!) but this second part involves something most people feel particularly squicky about – outlining where failures in responsibility have occurred and are occurring within a project or community that they are directly involved and emotionally invested in.
The following are some facts that you need to hear and demands (a long time in coming) that need to be made of you and that you need to take heed of. Maybe you won’t like this. Maybe it will seem threatening or upsetting or hurtful to some of you. Maybe you feel some of what I have to say pertains to others but isn’t something you yourself have done or have had a role in. Maybe you’re right but please understand that I am generalizing here and try to listen anyway without freaking out. I will be blunt because I truly feel that we cannot move forward without addressing these issues and clearing the air.
1.) Change is inevitable and some change is sorely needed. So many of you seem to think that homeschooling needs to stay the way you built it, that my generation needs to hush, quit making waves, and tow the line. Well, we will not. We grew up in it so we naturally look at it differently. Some of you really need to look at the unintended consequences of what you built, understand why we feel the way we do, and then, if you are able and willing, join up with those trying to make repairs and modifications.
2.) Homeschooling was hijacked under your watch. You made homeschooling a reality (yes, the iteration of it as it exists in modern times) and so you let “those other children,” children like me, be raised by their parents under the same system you created to ostensibly “liberate” children. This system you helped create, with seemingly good intentions, had a few serious built in bugs. One of the major ones is that it is a framework where parents have all the power, all the choices as to what this supposed liberation of children might look like. I get that you were idealistic back in the day and you thought (hoped?) that homeschooling parents would use this power wisely, put children first. Obviously many did not. You soon saw that bad things were happening to some of us, heard what extreme things some of these parents thought was “good” for children (being hit with objects, arranged marriages, religious indoctrination, and educational discrimination against girls). You noticed that a large and well-organized faction of the homeschooling world turned disturbingly authoritarian and fundamentalist and was recruiting new people quite quickly. Most of you said little and did nothing about it besides feel disgusted and distance yourself. Homeschooling got divided into two groups (one for you, one for them) and the fundamentalists took over the politics of homeschooling. You let them. Getting what you want and then ignoring repercussions, overlooking fraud, waste, and abuse, and forsaking those who it hurts is poor leadership, plain and simple. Instead of fighting for the rights of the children like me, you took detours and drove around the proverbial ghetto in the homeschooling city so that you did not have to look at it.
3.) This child abuse problem is a built-in homeschooling design flaw. The power dynamics within the niche you helped carve out were inherently not in favor of children. Vulnerable populations do best when there are multiple checks and balances tasked with ensuring that they are well treated by the dominant group (in this case, adults). Sometimes this still fails but it is the best we’ve got in this complex and difficult thing that life and human nature is. Putting a vulnerable group 100% under the “protection” of one kind of leadership leads to one of those “absolute power corrupts absolutely” type situations. You were afraid of government authoritarianism but ignored the other kinds of authoritarianism that can be just as much of an issue – those that crop up within church and family. We were left relying on our parents alone for protection and some of us had parents who really hurt us, whether intentionally or not. Other parents got caught up in and were hurt by dysfunctional churches and rigid beliefs (some introduced to them through their homeschooling social circles) and there was often nobody to step in and put a stop to the insanity or often even offer alternative viewpoints. That needs to change. You need to stop being so scared of government that you don’t allow it to do the job we elect people and pay taxes for it to do, which is to keep citizens (including children) safe.
4.) Children’s rights are not compatible with your children “belonging” to you. Kids belong to themselves and you are a caretaker, a parent, a loved one, not an owner. Kids are not pets and they are not servants or slaves or even “blessings” designed to augment your lifestyle. They are human beings in their own right. You need to understand that anytime you say something that remotely sounds like you think your kids belong to you as property or chattel, God-given or not, it is very triggering to those of us raised under an extreme version of this degrading and negating perspective.
5.) You personally benefitted from something that hurt kids. You could have joined Raymond Moore and put up a fight against the fundamentalist takeover but it seems that you didn’t. Many of you distanced yourself, ignored and denied the issues, and let this stuff happen because rocking the boat might have messed stuff up for you. You concluded that a free-for-all was fine as long as your family was ok and you blogged about your idyllic family homeschooling life while kids you never met (and perhaps some you did) got beaten and left illiterate due to the lack of outside oversight you helped create and a serious lack of internal policing of boundaries within the movement. If you had stood up to this, called people out, advocated for children to have true rights protected by law, you might have stood to lose a modicum of power, face more outside scrutiny, file a bit more paperwork, and have a few more bureaucratic hassles for your own little corner of the homeschooling world and you obviously didn’t want that. You thought nearsightedly about the hassles of your own paperwork, and you didn’t think about how this was a much bigger deal for many of us kids, that it might be a matter of a good childhood education versus a toxic childhood education or even a matter of life and death for some. This was selfish and wrong and very very harmful. We needed you to stand up for us and you were not there.
6.) You helped perpetuate harmful myths. The idea that parents always know best and that because teachers are paid for their time that they don’t care are both toxic things and both untrue. Plenty teachers care deeply and plenty parents definitely do not know or do best. Government also does not always equal tyranny. In fact, a lack of government creates a wild west type setting where a different type of tyranny can occur – tyranny of the strong and socially connected over the weak and defenseless. You perpetuated these myths and ignored the dark side of what can and does happen within many families when there are no outside influences encouraging people to do the right thing.
7.) Questioning you is not abusing or disrespecting you. The fact that people might question you as to what you did and didn’t do regarding these issues and wonder what you are doing and aren’t doing in regards to the issue of abuse or socialization reflects positively on them. They care. They’re curious. They want to know. Defensiveness and acting like you are persecuted just by having questions directed at you is ridiculous. You are an individual, with individual rights, but you are also answerable to your community and your society when it comes to what you do to other members of society, what policies you help usher in, recommend, and stand behind. Many of you have actually enjoyed a position of unrivaled privilege for many years, an expert role, so to now claim persecution is offensive, obtuse, and obnoxious. Just answer the questions and if you cannot do so satisfactorily, that should tell you (and the rest of us) something.
8.) Deflecting to your “public school problems” talking points when speaking with former homeschool kids gets you nowhere. Public school is your default comparison. For most of us, it’s not ours. That’s because you homeschooled us. Most of the former homeschoolers I’ve been talking about this issue with were homeschooled K-12. Many couldn’t give a flying fig about what the local public schools were doing or not doing during their primary education. That just wasn’t their world or their sphere of knowing. Also, I am one of the few former homeschool kids speaking out who did get the opportunity to go to a public high school and personally I found that it had its problems but sure wasn’t the bogeyman some of you made it out to be. What I had to deal with at home, a fundamentalist, authoritarian, abusive and neglectful environment, was so much worse as to belie comparison. Instead of bringing up public schools and what they do and don’t do every time a conversation is started, understand that for many former homeschool kids public school experiences are somewhat of an unknown quantity, something only experienced through movies and books and friends’ stories, and it often doesn’t seem so bad to many of us, who experienced much more extreme bullying, authoritarianism, and rote learning in our homes with people who were supposed to love us, day in and day out, for years. Most of us also simply do not have the passion for the issues of public schools that you do due to this unfamiliarity. We have strong feelings for the issues of homeschooling, so when we discuss homeschooling issues, please try to stay on topic, thank you.
9.) Y’all got the socialization thing quite wrong, so stop saying socialization is not a problem. Kids need peer interaction and not all peer interaction among groups of kids is damaging or results in bullying. Spending time with people your own age is an intrinsic need and should be facilitated as conscientiously as balanced meals. Making same-age friends of your own choice is amazing and not being able to do so is lonely and painful. John Holt himself minimized the importance of this peer to peer interaction and the fundamentalist Christians intentionally preclude it as much as possible, only engaging in supervised family-to-family gatherings so that kids from different families are almost never alone together. What did it do for kids raised like this? We spent years craving same-age companions and when we did finally get them, we discovered that we did not fit in. We were strangers, outliers, oddballs. Too many of us were left us feeling somewhat like immigrants in our own country. That is not okay, it is not something you as a parent who went to public or private school (no matter how much of an oddball you might have been) are likely able to identify with, and personally the pain from that was some of the hardest to overcome.
10.) You need to be open to homeschool kids’ true stories of bad homeschooling. Your generation created homeschooling, ostensibly to liberate children from rote learning and to protect them from negative influences. We are the generation of homeschooled children and we are saying that too many of us were exposed to negative influences 24/7 at home, exposed to controlling, dysfunctional, authoritarian environments where we were not allowed to be the people we inherently are. I get that it is hard for you to hear that the education method you helped create to protect us from the things that hurt you or others in public school went on to hurt us badly. Still, you need to listen to the truth. Did you hear that? We said it was bad homeschooling that kept us from fully blossoming into what we were meant to be and we had to do catch-up once we were out. It’s reality. Please deal with it.
11.) You are not the victims here. So many of you seem to have lived in your own little middle class bubble with your Lake Wobegon effect, only wanting to hear the good stories of homeschooling so that you could continue on saying to all who would listen that homeschooling was the best thing since sliced bread. You convinced yourselves that teaching your own family, occasionally sharing tips, and being a part of a group or the occasional homeschool fair (or even selling curricula) was all that was needed of you. Now that we say that you did not do enough to help marginalized homeschool kids, do not whine that you are being maligned, persecuted, or have been given the short end of the stick. Have a sense of perspective. The true victims of this are the little kids who are still going through what I and people like me endured. There are homeschool kids dealing with that kind of environment right now at this very moment, there are kids who wound up dead, and there are adults you will never hear from because maltreatment in a homeschool setting effectively left them stunted, or even worse, still imprisoned in an abusive home environment. You might be upset to hear that homeschooling isn’t 100% above average like you thought it was, but have a sense of perspective please.
12.) You cannot disavow us. Far too many of us had mediocre to awful experiences, and yes, we call ourselves homeschoolers. Now that we are of age to speak about what was done to us in the name of homeschooling, you are beginning to realize that you cannot just keep saying “those other homeschoolers” or “that wasn’t real homeschooling.” The general public, the non-homeschoolers, (rightly) do not make such a distinction. They agree that we are homeschoolers because our parents claimed to be homeschooling parents, no matter what they did at home. You need to recognize this too.
13.) You cannot claim us as “successes.” You may be impressed by our moxie or you may be going for a version of the “no harm, no foul” argument. It’s hard to tell. Either way it doesn’t work to try and claim us as “doing well” because of the quality of our homeschooling experience. You certainly can find ways to say that through our activism we must embody the best of what homeschooling teaches – free thinking, independence, a counter-cultural bent, but I have some ugly news on that as well. People who come from public school, private school, and utter lack of school do that stuff too. It’s a human nature thing, a personality thing, and a socialization thing. Counter-cultural ideas are more easily picked up by some than others and they gain traction when there is something in the culture that is not meeting human needs. Also, there are much better ways to create these “free-thinking” traits without the abuse, heartache, and pain that many of us endured. Many of us developed these traits the hard way and many of us (those you never hear from) did not develop them at all. Those of us who are now out running our mouths about this often have a bit of survivors guilt as well. We know and love people who never made it to this point. That’s right, I personally know former mistreated homeschoolers who you would never call “counter-cultural” or likely even notice at all. They are still like I used to try to be – keeping their head down, not rocking the boat, just trying to pass for normal, and struggling every day with a lack of education and/or certain health problems resulting from their upbringing that they are still deeply ashamed of and hurt by. Are you going to claim them as “successes” too? I didn’t think so.
14.) Misleading and “liar stats” do not help your case. So many of you are still trying to deflect and leave us as unclaimed baggage, saying that abuse in public school settings is more prevalent or that homeschooling is almost perfect in comparison. The issue of negating our experience by doing this should not be overlooked, but your use of numbers and blanket assertions that have no scientific backing is a huge problem. For example, you can say “there is more abuse in public schools than within homeschools” because, sure, when you look at the numbers of people in the population, homeschooling is certainly a minority. However, when it comes to the percentages within each population (homeschooling and public school), the truth is we just don’t know. Nobody has studied it. It’s a big question mark. You certainly can say that you think homeschooling is the most awesome education method ever but you cannot use data to back it up because that data doesn’t exist. I can’t tell you how many times old guard homeschoolers assert such nonexistent “data” or hearsay as fact or who use Brian Ray’s bogus NHERI research to back up their assertions. If you are going to claim the fundamentalists’ “data” are you going to also claim what the fundamentalists did with their liar stats too? If not, if you want to differentiate yourself as not being included with “those people” then stop using their debunked numbers on your blogs and websites, and stop making up or regurgitating “facts” and “data” that simply do not exist. If you want such data, it will have to be collected. Until then, hush it and admit that you are as in the dark on the breakdown of these numbers as the rest of us. You are guessing. You may want it to be true or think it likely is, but you do not have proof.
15.) If you are defending an institution sooner than defending flesh-and blood people who are hurting and could use your help, you have lost your way. Yes, homeschooling is an institution, and its politics have trumped the people it was meant to serve – children. Isn’t this the exact complaint you have about public school? That teachers unions, employment concerns, and the tendency for uninvested workers to cut corners often leave things bad off for children? Well, nice job recreating that mindset in your illustrious alternative. Who speaks for the population of children in homeschooling? Well, some of us homeschool graduates are trying mightily but many of you don’t seem to want to hear us, preferring to label us as something undesirable so you can continue on with your eyes on the holy grail of the homeschooling lifestyle, stepping on the toes of (and sometimes outright stampeding over) all the homeschooled children who aren’t your own offspring.
16.) If you care about children’s rights, you need to champion the effort to address child abuse within homeschooling. All of the unschooling parents and the non-fundamentalist homeschooling parents should be standing right there with us, have our backs in this, but too many of you are being quiet. I know some of you do have our backs wholeheartedly and others have our backs conditionally, but sadly not enough do. We get lumped in with the “anti-homeschoolers” instead, labeled a threat to be defended against, our concerns brushed off as being overblown or misdirected. I know many of you are scared, still living back in the late 80’s when the legality of homeschooling was precarious. But today we are in 2013 when that’s been settled and it’s children’s rights within homeschooling that are precarious. Some old guard homeschoolers have have recognized this and begun to get behind us. Pat Farenga (John Holt’s right hand man) is one of them. He passed on Rebecca Gorman’s change.org petition asking the HSLDA to address child abuse and he blogged about the issue. You know what happened? He took some flack from other unschoolers who preferred to continue on with the “la la la la la, I can’t hear you or see you” strategy when it comes to such problems within homeschooling. I guess in their eyes Pat wasn’t being properly defensive of homeschooling as an abuse-free zone or towing the unofficial line about casting blame elsewhere, so I say good for him. Pat Farenga’s initiative and public support for addressing the issue (although he has not called for any major changes or any added outside oversight) stands in stark contrast to a lot of the defensive posturing we’ve encountered in this effort to address child abuse within homeschooling.
17.) You need to support outside protections for children or this won’t get better. So many of you are into gentle parenting. So many of you are into children’s rights. So many of you are anti-regulation nonetheless. Why? How? Do you think that we can just go ask everyone “pretty please will you do the right thing?” Sure you can do that and generally they’ll do the right thing, just as generally parents will try to do what they feel is best for their children. Thing is, this is not some hard and fast rule about life and anyone who believes it comes across as incredibly naive to me. Policy for an at-risk group can’t be based on the “honor system” and when it is, you can’t expect something good to result.
18.) You need to have awkward conversations in order to confront the issues. Some unschoolers (like these at Home Education Magazine’s unschooling.com) are trying to discuss abuse within homeschooling and unschooling, attempting to have that talk. The first tries may seem a little stilted and we might learn some things that we find shocking or surprising. For instance, the idea that some might consider structured environments and mild authoritarian behavior as being inherently abusive, or that a discussion on homeschooling can so easily sidetrack into a discussion of Franciscan priests and attachment parenting, but it was good to see it as a start. It’s opening dialogue, shedding sunlight on the matter, and that is what is so desperately needed in such a situation. Can you write something better? Share something more? Build on this? If you can, please do.
19.) Not all less-than-perfect parenting or structured childrearing is abuse. I shouldn’t even have to say this, but there are some people within the homeshooling and unschoolng communities who have been deflecting the child abuse conversation by saying that all parenting is abusive or anything besides their favored brand of attachment parenting is abusive, or that telling your kid that they can’t drink juice right before bed even though the kid gets upset about it is abuse. This is foolishness and I’m going to call it for what it really is – child abuse apologism. Because if everything is child abuse or frivolous things are called child abuse then we really don’t have to deal with it, do we? Real child abuse (beatings, psychological torture, sexual coercion, withholding sustenance, etc.) can then flourish. We all must take a hard and analytical look at the underlying causes of the actual authoritarian and abuse-tolerant homeschooling culture that exists today. Once we have done that, we can do the part that we all look forward to – creating and implementing effective changes that make homeschooling better for kids.
20.) Doing these aforementioned problematic things does not mean you are a “bad person.” You are an ordinary human being with your own struggles and you may have fallen into a trap that catches many people. You are not alone in making mistakes or letting idealism blind you when working with something. This is incredibly common. What else is incredibly common is for people to double down and deny that it exists, that they had any part of it, refuse to discuss it, blame others, and claim to be so misunderstood that they are now the ones being hurt. So let me just say that this stuff happened and we need you to do something else besides respond like that. The kids need you to suck it up, overcome your pride, and get to work fixing the problems.
I know that most of the people who helped create this mess likely did not intend to build something that would ever be used to hurt kids, and most would have been outright horrified if they’d known that something they started in good faith was seen and then used as a weak point for extremists to exploit and widen so big that they could practically drive a freight train through our society. The thing is, this happened. This is real. It sucks but it is serious and we have got to fix it. Us as former homeschoolers and homeschooling parents. Us as Americans. Us as the world. Us as individuals. It is a human rights issue. It is a Christian issue. It is a parenting issue. It is a gender issue. It is an educational issue. More knee-jerk defensiveness and spreading unfounded myths of homeschooling exceptionalism (and there has been lots of both) will get us nowhere. If you have done or contributed to some of the things I listed above, you do not need to say you are sorry or even feel compunction. We can let the past be the past. Just step forward to try and make it right. Whether you had any role in creating this at all, if you love homeschooling, if you love children, you need to be first in line to start addressing the serious systemic problems that are coming to light today.
Also, if there is something you want to do to help immediately, you could read “Jennifer’s” story here (she is the little sister of a friend of mine, name changed for privacy) and pitch in for some of the things she is in need of. She recently turned 18 and just escaped a bad homeschooling situation with a police escort and little more than the clothes on her back.