Collateral Damage

A few years ago I found myself in the middle of a group of post-graduation homeschoolers sitting around a living room enjoying laughter, conversation, and copious amounts of Mt. Dew until the wee hours of the morning.  We were from all across the country, but had met up for a weekend of goofing off, eating, and (of all things) dancing. We were having ourselves a grand old time. We swapped stories, compared home school and youth group experiences, and poked fun at the more awkward among us during the dance. We may not have all known each other terribly well, but we knew this crowd. This was the culture we grew up in.

It was the last evening of our weekend together and as dawn grew closer the conversation grew more serious. It was no less fun of a conversation, mind you, it was only more serious. You must remember that we were all graduated homeschoolers from conservative families. Debating the foundational truths of the universe was a 6th grade requirement for most of us. By the time we were in high school it was an elective. We did it for fun; and we were good at. Most of us still are.

I believe the strand of conversation I’d like to talk about began as a debate regarding the virtues and vices of courtship versus dating, but gradually morphed its way into tackling the much more nebulous pros and cons of the conservative, fundamentalist worldview that we had all grown up in. Even though most of us were still fairly conservative and most would have self-identified as fundamentalist in our theology, it’s was a pretty hot topic. I was just beginning my journey out of that mindset at the time, but found myself the primary prosecutor of the conservative worldview as we examined and cross examined our personal family experiences to determine merit or guilt in a myriad of issues.

At one point in the conversation the friend of mine whose home we were in found himself on the witness stand. I was maintaining that the particular program that he and I had both grown up in had overshadowed any good it may have done with a track record of bad theology, guilt based behavior modification, and other such crimes against our generation of homeschoolers.  I finished what I seem to remember as a rousing condemnation of the program in general with a question. Can you honestly say you don’t feel like you were personally harmed by the teachings and culture of this ministry we grew up in?

The entire conversation stopped abruptly. For the briefest moment I thought my eloquence had stunned everybody into awed silence. Not quite. A sickening feeling settled into the pit of my stomach as I followed everyone’s eyes to the very quiet person sitting at the foot of the stairs. Listening so politely that most of us had forgotten she was there; was my friend’s mother.

All you have to do is look at the Facebook feed of any ex-homeschooler who shares an anti-homeschool or anti-fundamentalist article and you’ll see this scenario play out in a hundred less amiable ways. People aren’t glad we’re talking about this. People are hurt. The homeschool debate has seen a drastic increase in collateral damage and it’s a destructive swath of hurt feelings, broken relationships, and bitter or tearful people. No matter which side you’re on, it’s not pretty and it’s not fun. It’s hard and it hurts.

Here’s why. Ex-homeschoolers believe what they do for a reason. This isn’t just a late-onset teenage rage against authority. This is a large group of adults with legitimate concerns and some serious suggestions on how to address them. The problem is that these reasons have very little to do to with the ex-homeschoolers themselves. They actually have everything to do with the values, opinions, and decisions of the culture, religion, and parents that raised them.

I’m not saying that people aren’t personally responsible for their own actions (or in this case, reactions) but the primary sources of disagreement and friction are not things that the ex-homeschoolers did that went badly, but rather things their parents did or decided that, in their opinion, went badly. For example, think of the answers to these questions. What denomination did your family belong to? Were you allowed to attend youth group functions? What curriculum did your parents use? What homeschool groups or organizations did they choose to enroll in? In almost every case the children involved had absolutely zero influence in these decisions. Yet, these and many other questions directly shaped their experience as homeschoolers, teenagers, and members of their community. (It is worth noting, of course, that the same is true for every child, regardless of the culture they are brought up in. It’s just important to remember that the tendency towards religious fundamentalism,   isolation, and patriarchal authority in the homeschool movement amplifies this particular facet of upbringing – often cranked to 11, if you’ll pardon the pop-culture reference.)

This has a very obvious but sadly underappreciated effect on all debates regarding homeschooling and upbringing. When we’re talking about the issues with homeschooling we aren’t dealing in abstract philosophy or even analyzing our own personal choices. We’re talking about, judging, and either criticizing or praising real people that we have real relationships with. We are reflecting on the actions and attitudes of pastors, churches, siblings, and friends. More importantly and with greater potency, we’re passing judgment on our parents.

This simple fact causes two things; passion and collateral damage.

Nothing is as passionately important to us as things that deal with our relationships. A hard task at work doesn’t pose nearly as large of a problem as a co-worker that we just can’t stand personally. No amount of philosophical disagreement can create the vitriol, rage, tears, and sorrow of a wrong suffered at the hands of a trusted friend or family member. We’re relational beings, and this is where it shows.

Such passion is not without consequence. Remember, in these debates we’re talking about how the decisions and actions of real people effected their children. People are angry, people are defensive, people are hurt, and people are getting hurt. That’s the real collateral damage of the ex-homeschool debate.

This damage is labeled as “collateral” very intentionally. Relationships and people are not the target of the debate. There are people, posts, and arguments targeting specific people, but those aren’t what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the debate as a whole. What’s being targeted and often attacked are the problems. Whether it’s patriarchy, low academic standards, isolation, manipulation, or abuse that’s being torn down, the primary target is the problem, not the people involved in the problem.

That creates its own problem though, doesn’t it? How exactly are we supposed to separate the problem from the people who perpetuate the problem?

Welcome to the hurt. This is the core problem.

This is a two edged problem. It exists both on the side of those voicing their concerns and those hearing the concerns. When we fail to make a distinction between a belief, conviction, philosophy, or action that is being discussed based on its merits and the person or people who uphold or have upheld it we are the problem. Whether we don’t clarify when voicing a concern or we choose not to hear such a distinction because we feel like we’re the ones being complained about, we’re the ones causing this divide and this damage.

Here’s the deal. Nobody who is seriously involved in this debate is saying that their parents were out to screw them up on purpose. Every reasoned voice you hear knows, and will usually gladly say, that their parents were doing the best they knew how and had their children’s best interest at heart the whole time. What’s actually being said is that despite the best efforts of a generation of parents, the children of the homeschool movement have been hurt. Not because their parents wanted to hurt them, but because the parents believed harmful lies. None of the serious handling of the debate denies that the parents were doing their best. It only maintains that their parents were misinformed or lied to in a few key areas of philosophy or theology and THAT was the problem in their upbringing.

Regardless of how much we would like to say there shouldn’t be this much collateral damage, there is. It exists, and it is going to keep growing as the debate does. It’s something that can be lessened, but not eliminated. With that thought in mind, there tend to be two different schools of thought among the ex-homeschoolers on how to deal with it.

Most obviously, of course, you have those who feel like the collateral damage is a necessary evil. They just grit their teeth, toss their grenades, and let the shrapnel shred what it does. As we’ve discussed, the philosophy and problems are their primary target, but if mom and dad or Pastor Joe get in the way, too bad for them. They should wise up or face the music.

Second and less noticeable are those who would rather err on the side of peaceful relationships (or at least less strained relationships) and choose not to say something if they feel like it would cause stress or damage. Through their silence they choose to endorse practices or beliefs that have caused very real physical, psychological, and spiritual damage to them and other like them.

As you may have witnessed, neither option is particularly healthy. Such is the nature of extremes. While we all strive to be somewhere in the middle, it’s hard not to lean one direction or the other. What should we do when we see a huge problem and nobody seems to believe us? What about the children, often our own siblings, who are still living in this culture and being actively hurt by the things that hurt us? What about the very real chance that saying something will end family ties? How do we balance all of this, be honest with ourselves and the people around us, and still manage to be good people through it all? You can see why this is so complex and messy.

Yet, we continue to struggle our way through these tough, tear inducing, and relationship ending conversations. Why?

Because it’s not actually about us.

For the ex-homeschoolers it’s important that their story be told, but self-expression is very rarely the driving force behind the articles and discussion filling the web right now. Rather, it tends to be much more about truth and exposure. Letting the culture around us (especially the extended family and church members many of us grew up estranged from) know the reality of the picture perfect homeschool world matters because truth matters. So many organizations have spent decades peddling lies about how well their products work. A vast number of families have perpetuated these lies simply by not wanting to admit their struggles or failures to those around them. This needs to end.

More than that, most ex-homeschoolers have very specific teachings and cultural norms squarely in their sights. Remember, this isn’t blind rage. This is passion against specific things that are harmful and hurting people. It’s important to stand against hurtful and abusive teachings. Usually that means loudly and publicly. As often as anything else, that’s why the ex-homeschoolers are speaking up.

Nearest and dearest to most in the movement is the well-being of the children still involved in the dangerous or damaging cultures that we have come out of. For most of us that means siblings, nieces, nephews, and very close friends. It’s personal; which makes it very important and very hard. We’ve been hurt very badly and see the same dangers being piled onto children who have very little or no chance to speak up for themselves. That’s why we’re speaking up. That’s why this is important.

The homeschool debate, especially with the recent inclusion of the ex-homeschooler voice, is an incredibly important issue to tackle head on and wrestle with continually. Ignoring it is not an option, especially for those of us that have homeschooled, are homeschooling, or are planning on homeschooling. We have to engage intelligently with all of the evidence and all of the positions for the good of a lot of people, and not just those currently or previously involved in homeschooling. Our entire culture needs to have this debate.

So let’s have it, but let’s limit the damage. The point of the entire conversation is truth, understanding, and correction of error. The end goal is the healing of past hurts and the prevention of future hurts. We are the problem when we forget any of that. We are the problem when we refuse to hear genuine concerns and stick blindly to what we already decided and acted on years ago. We are the problem when we lose sight of fixing things and attack people for the hurts they’ve been a part of.

We all win when we’re willing to both speak and hear with sincerity. Let’s do that.



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