The Homeschool Apostates


They were raised to carry the fundamentalist banner forward and redeem America. But now the Joshua Generation is rebelling.

At 10 P.M. on a Sunday night in May, Lauren and John,* a young couple in the Washington, D.C., area, started an emergency 14-hour drive to the state where Lauren grew up in a strict fundamentalist household. Earlier that day, Lauren’s younger sister, Jennifer, who had recently graduated from homeschooling high school, had called her in tears: “I need you to get me out of this place.” The day, Jennifer said, had started with another fight with her parents, after she declined to sing hymns in church. Her slight speech impediment made her self-conscious about singing in public, but to her parents, her refusal to sing or recite scripture was more evidence that she wasn’t saved. It didn’t help that she was a vegan animal-rights enthusiast.

After the family returned home from church, Jennifer’s parents discovered that she had recently been posting about animal rights on Facebook, which they had forbidden. They took away Jennifer’s graduation presents and computer, she told Lauren. More disturbing, they said that if she didn’t eat meat for dinner she’d wake up to find one of the pets she babied gone. 

To most people, it would have sounded like overreaction to innocuous forms of teenage rebellion. But Lauren, who’d cut ties with her family the previous year, knew it was more. The sisters grew up, with two brothers, in a family that was almost completely isolated, they say, held captive by their mother’s extreme anxiety and explosive anger. “I was basically raised by someone with a mental disorder and told you have to obey her or God’s going to send you to hell,” Lauren says. “Her anxiety disorder meant that she had to control every little thing, and homeschooling and her religious beliefs gave her the justification for it.”

It hadn’t started that way. Her parents began homeschooling Lauren when she struggled to learn to read in the first grade. They were Christians, but not devout. Soon, though, the choice to homeschool morphed into rigid fundamentalism. The sisters were forbidden to wear clothes that might “shame” their father or brothers. Disobedience wasn’t just bad behavior but a sin against God. Both parents spanked the children with a belt. Her mother, Jennifer says, hit her for small things, like dawdling while trying on clothes.

Written By: Kathryn Joyce
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  1. Truly hair-raising. One of my college textbooks for ESL learners had a chapter on homeschooling which was very positive. The students introduced in the chapter all gave reasons like “normal schooling wasn’t challenging enough” or “there was too much wasted time at normal schools.” My Japanese students were all surprised that homeschooling was possible in the USA and were impressed by the glowing description given in the textbook. I kept repeating to them over and over that it could also be abused by religious sects to isolate their community from larger society. Now I can tell them about the child abuse too.

    • In reply to #5 by mr_DNA:

      Home schooling is like home dentistry. Very few people have the training and the resources to do it properly.

      Hi mr DNA, I’m inclined to agree, however in most classrooms (and I am a teacher) there is very little time to spend one on one. My typical class has 25-28 students we have 3, 70 minute lessons a week per class. Take one lesson now throw away 10 while you mark roll get them from their last class, take out another 10 to 15 dealing with behaviour (in some classes) and another 10 delivering direct content. Now divide the remaining time between 28 students and it is easy to see how some parents while not expert with a good work program and reasonable intelligence can really give enormous one on one support to their kids.

      Doing it well would be difficult and almost a full time job. Having people come up with their own approved work programs etc. would be extremely taxing. It would also get much more difficult to teach when the levels in Maths, Sciences and English well everything gets into the realm of experts (but in fairness their are a lot of teachers without specific qualifications teaching outside of their area- due to politicians failing to act to get teachers qualified in areas attracted to teaching) some are very effective but you need to be prepared to work you backside off up-skilling yourself. Many people think because they were taught they understand teaching, not so. Still I would like to see these articles specify religious home schooling in their titles vs just home schooling because they are completely different animals.

  2. Excellent article. It really is staggering that so many states do not have even basic regimes for inspecting and testing home-schooled children. Certainly in Europe the potential for homeschooling to be a cover for child abuse is now pretty widely recognised.

    It might help if America joined 16 European countries (and 7 more with legislation in progress) in banning all forms of assaults on children, including spanking by parents.

    And if America stopped being one of only two nations to resist signing the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The other enlightened state is Somalia.

  3. I’ve seen two faces of home schooling, and surely there are more. I’m not familiar with the situation where parents, legitimately or not, home school because of dystopian situations in public schools, but am confident that such scenarios exist. When I lived in very rural central Colorado — way up in the hills, most of my neighbors home schooled their children, either as solitary families or in small multi-family groups. This was mainly because it was untenable to put the kids on snowy roads for hours each day to reach a remote public school. These are people who do their shopping visits to town by month or season. I never saw any sort of ideological purpose to their decision to home school. There were some cases where the environment was fairly libertarian, and the kids were taught more about hunting & woodcraft than social studies, and some, perhaps most, where the parent/teacher was not highly qualified to teach a broad range of subjects. Social engagement ranged from nil to moderate, simply because of the geography. I knew of 4 kids from three families who were members of the local (30 miles away over a high mountain pass) high school ski team, even though they weren’t enrolled in that school and were only able to make some of the events. School boards in the area recognized the logistical reasons for that situation and often bent over backward to accommodate it. The kids were mostly isolated in very small peer groups, but that was also sometimes the case in the public schools as well. When I was a small child we lived in one of those tiny mountain towns and I went to the public school. There was one girl and one other boy in the school that were my age, and we had just two classes for grades 1-12. I liked it that way, but it’s a very different experience from going to class with 20 or 30 of your age peers.

    The home schooling that I see here in the US Southeast is quite different. I know of 8 families that home school their children, and all of them do it primarily for religious reasons, or at least that’s how it looks to me. They are all white, conservative evangelicals. They often form groups, and so the children socialize more than those I knew out west, but it’s only among other white, conservative evangelicals. About the only interactions I see with public school kids is when the home schooled kids sit in the bleachers at public school sporting events, and perhaps half of the children don’t get even that. School boards around here seem to recognize home schooling as a funding threat and so make subtle accommodations in attempts to minimize alienation of fundamentalist parents. I frequently visit my nephew’s 4th grade public school class, and can’t help but notice overt religious symbolism such as prominent posters of a light-skinned blue-eyed Jesus or “In God We Trust” over the door of almost every classroom. These things are constitutionally illegal, but the schools promote as much of it as they feel that they’ll get away with to stanch the “faith drain” of religious parents pulling their kids out.

    In contrast, my nephew attended a very expensive private Christian school for 2nd & 3rd grade even though he and his parents are not religious. They had bible study as part of the curriculum, but otherwise excellent academic credentials. The student body was much more ethnically diverse while constrained to only those in the upper middle class. It had rich Muslim kids, rich Hindu kids, rich… well, you get the idea. Thing is, rather ironically, religious iconography was far less prevalent at that Christian school than at the pubic schools. Their funding relied on not alienating wealthy parents regardless of their religious leanings, while the public schools had to kowtow to the predominant religious culture to stay afloat.

  4. Forget Stephen King, this is the truest horror, I’ve read about. The young lady’s correct diagnosis of the clear mental disorder of the mother is key to her getting out. Next the other kids need to escape. Horro to the truest extent of the word.

    • In reply to #10 by crookedshoes:

      Forget Stephen King, this is the truest horror, I’ve read about. The young lady’s correct diagnosis of the clear mental disorder of the mother is key to her getting out. Next the other kids need to escape. Horro to the truest extent of the word.

      Stephen Kings religious beliefs are more frightening than his books too.

      • Yes, I’ve seen his craziness!

        In reply to #11 by alaskansee:

        In reply to #10 by crookedshoes:

        Forget Stephen King, this is the truest horror, I’ve read about. The young lady’s correct diagnosis of the clear mental disorder of the mother is key to her getting out. Next the other kids need to escape. Horro to the truest extent of the word.

        Stephen Kings rel…

  5. My heart breaks for these children, but their problem was with religion, not homeschooling. Regulating homeschooling is not going to help. Mandating standardized testing or state approved curricula is not going to stop fundamentalist parents from isolating and manipulating their children, and it is not going to stop them from indoctrinating them with their religious views. Even if mandatory in-home meetings were required of all homeschoolers, these families would simply drop off the radar and refuse to participate, or band together to form small religious private schools and cry religious discrimination if the government tried to interfere. Focusing on the wrong issue gets us no where.

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