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Homeschooling Praise and Pitfalls

When I had the first glimmer of an idea for “When Sparrows Fall, my novel about a widowed homeschool mom, I’d nearly finished homeschooling my own children. After more than 20 years of home education, I was familiar with its pros and cons, but my research for the novel made me even more aware of extremes in the movement.

In the pioneer days of homeschooling, we enjoyed our freedom and independence. We made our own rules. Not many publishers catered to our needs, so we scrounged up our own curriculum. In the early years, because our legal situation wasn’t clear, we kept an eye out for truant officers and didn’t let the children play outside until the public school kids had been released for the day.

Oh, but we had fun. Banding together with other homeschool families, we devoured countless books and enjoyed umpteen field trips. My kids raised pigs, played soccer and made papier-mâché pterodactyls to hang in their bedrooms. They became proficient birders and insatiable readers, and it was all about educational freedom and the joy of learning. The upper grades were more work, but we persevered. By the time my kids were in high school, homeschooling had gained respect as a legitimate educational choice.

At the same time, though, disturbing trends had emerged. Although homeschool publishers and support groups had sprung up everywhere, the movement was hijacked by people who lived by a rigid set of rules. Conference speakers began advocating a way of life that I couldn’t and still can’t agree with, even if their motives were good.

“Quiverfull” teachings have become prevalent. Extrapolated from two verses in Psalm 127, this is the practice of letting God determine the size of a family, and it explains the plethora of large families in the homeschool community, such as the Duggar family of the 19 Kids and Counting TV show. And because the parents want to protect their children from the corruption of the world, some of the families have become very isolated.

All of us want to protect our families, but when that protection hangs on into adulthood, young adults – especially young women – are treated like children. Protection becomes control. In some circles of homeschoolers, women aren’t allowed to work outside the home, go to college or even vote. Young adults are required to “court” instead of date, and their exposure to the larger world is strictly limited. This separatist mentality can lead to cultural illiteracy and sometimes to extremes of anti-government sentiments.

As radical ideas have become the norm, the typical homeschool mom has become something very different from the nonconformists I knew in the early days of home education. Conforming to Quiverfull standards, she may have six children – or 10 or 15- often birthed at home. She grinds her own wheat. She never wears pants.

Although the rules vary from one group to the next, I must have been a failure in the eyes of many of my fellow homeschoolers. But I’ve never forgotten why we started the adventure in the first place: For the joy of learning – not to be forced into someone else’s mold.

I wish homeschoolers would examine the movement’s extremes as carefully as they once examined the curriculum they bought for their first kindergartner. Whether our children are in public, private, or home school, we all need to engage in critical thinking. If we can’t think for ourselves, if we blindly follow a leader, we may find ourselves in deep trouble, like Miranda, the protagonist of “When Sparrows Fall.”

Some readers might wonder if the scenario that plays out in the novel could happen in real life. It certainly could. Although the characters are figments of my imagination, the teachings, practices, and events of the story are based on realities that I’ve seen firsthand or discovered in my research. Although I don’t know anyone who has experienced exactly what Miranda experiences, I know of very similar situations.

My heart aches for women who are trapped in a system that robs them of the very freedom that’s supposed to come with the privilege of teaching their children at home. Especially for a Christian, education should be a well-rounded, open-minded adventure with grace and liberty at the heart of it.

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