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The 3 lies that convinced two conservative Christians to stop home-schooling their kids
Christina and Aaron Beall, products of conservative Christian home-schooling, are sending their kids to public school. Here's why.
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There’s a fascinating story in the Washington Post today by reporter Peter Jamison (gift article here) about a Christian couple with four kids that made the incredibly scary decision to… send their kids to public school.
Christina and Aaron Beall were both products of conservative Christian home-schooling. Christina graduated from the arch-conservative Patrick Henry College, which was founded by Michael Farris, who also founded the arch-conservative Home School Legal Defense Association. Aaron is a “self-taught web developer” who met Christina because their families both belonged to a religious community led by Gary Cox, another home-schooling advocate.
They grew up believing birth control was evil, Creationism is true, and dinosaurs were on Noah’s Ark. They also thought public schools were “indoctrination camps” run by the government in part to turn children against Christianity. So of course they assumed they would home-school their kids just as they were.
The turning point, however, came when they realized how badly they had been lied to by their Christian communities. I think these lies are really worth focusing on because the Bealls were True Believers™ who still couldn’t reconcile what they were taught with their lived experience, and they took the risk of following their gut instead of tradition.
Lie #1) Physically abusing your children is a proper form of discipline.
When the Bealls were married in 2012, they sat through a pre-marital seminar run by a minister in their faith community. One of the topics involved the best way to punish their future children. Following the advice of Michael and Debi Pearl in their 1994 book To Train Up a Child, the Bealls were told they should use physical objects to hit their kids:
“The use of the rod is for the purpose of breaking the child’s will,” stated the handout that they bent over together in the church. “One way to tell if this has happened is to see if they can look you in the eyes after being disciplined and ask for forgiveness.”
The Pearls advocate hitting children with tree branches, belts and other “instruments of love” to instill obedience, and recommend that toddlers who take slowly to potty training be washed outdoors with cold water from a garden hose. Their book advocates “training sessions” in which infants, as soon as they are old enough to crawl, are placed near a desired object and repeatedly struck with a switch if they disobey commands not to touch it.
Both Christina and Aaron suffered that abuse as kids. In Aaron’s case, the euphemistic ways discipline was described in their seminar “did not capture the childhood terror of being struck several times a week.” He believed the lesson he learned from that abuse was to never challenge or question authority figures.
Common sense told both of them that physically abusing their children—no matter how often Christian leaders insisted this wasn’t abusive—wasn’t the best way to raise kids.
So they didn’t follow the advice.
Lie #2) Questioning the existence of God is the result of trauma.
By the time they had their fourth child, Aaron began wondering what else from his childhood he might be wrong about. That led to reading books about evolution and cosmology, listening to ex-Christians talk about their experiences (which mirrored his own), and wondering more about the public elementary school in his area that had a great reputation. (When he suggested sending their oldest child there, his wife faced a uniquely conservative Christian dilemma: Oppose public schools… or obey her husband.)
Christina also realized that Aaron wasn’t doubting his faith out of some hatred for God, or problems in his life, or because he had a desire to “sin.” It was the result of a lot of introspection and reflection. It was, she said, “the hardest thing Aaron had ever done.” She was still a believer, but she now had more reason to believe the dogma she was taught growing up was not true.
At the same time, Christina also learned more about the problems with spiritual abuse and Christian Nationalism. She also started questioning why her father told her she’d be wasting her time if she ever worked outside the house, a belief that no longer comported with her outlook on life.
Turns out being married to someone you knew was a good man, but also someone who no longer fit in the conservative Christian mold, makes you rethink everything you were taught about people outside the bubble.
Lie #3) The public schools are anti-Christian bastions of immorality
It didn’t take very long for their oldest daughter Aimee, who was attending first grade, to fit in and adjust to her new environment. Her teacher loved her, Aimee was making new friends, and her reading skills were quickly improving. More importantly, the Bealls saw first-hand that she wasn’t being led astray by liberal “groomers.”
“People who think the public schools are indoctrinating don’t know what indoctrination is. We were indoctrinated,” Aaron says. “It’s not even comparable.”
The article notes that any doubts they had about public school were “usually silenced by their wonder and gratitude at the breadth of their children’s education.” Christina even began volunteering in the classroom.
This is what educators and public school supporters have been saying for years. The best public schools expose kids to the breadth and depth of knowledge, and variety of people, they could almost certainly not find inside a bubble. They are heavily regulated. They have standards. If kids begin falling through the cracks, there are systems in place to help them out.
Public schools, like all institutions, have flaws. They aren’t and shouldn’t be immune from criticism. But the Christian Right has spent decades lying about the extent of those problems to an audience of believers predisposed to hating anything connected to the government. They demonize hard-working teachers and administrators and try to take over school boards in order to replace expertise with right-wing indoctrination.
The Bealls have finally figured out what the rest of us have known for some time. They deserve a hell of a lot of respect for taking the risk of sending their kids to public school, not because it might backfire on the kids, but because the backlash from their families and religious communities is bound to be fierce.
Still, it’s the best move for their family.
None of this is to say home-schooling itself is evil. But the system only works if kids are actually receiving an education. We’ve seen religious communities fail at this time and time again. One home-schooled Christian has written about how she had to create her own high school transcript. It won’t surprise you that the Home School Legal Defense Association has repeatedly fought against any kind of oversight on Christian parents, a move that allows abusive behavior, both physical and educational, to remain hidden from public view. There’s no way to make sure students are receiving even a rudimentary education under the policy goals of those Christian Right groups. (Other non-profit groups are working to change that.)
In 2021, American Atheists released a statement expressing concern about the rise in home-schooling. They said their fear was the “lack of state-level laws protecting homeschooled children from child abuse and educational neglect.” Among other things, they worried that only 12 states require instructors to have any qualifications, only 9 states require a student progress evaluation, and 13 states allow religious exemptions to home-schooling requirements.
Those are valid concerns. If parents really are educating their kids and there’s a way to verify that (for the sake of the children), more power to them. It wouldn’t matter if that’s happening from a religious perspective. But that’s not what’s happening in practice. Conservative Christians just don’t care.
Incidentally, this article is part of a series about the rise of home-schooling in the country due to political concerns as well as the pandemic. But you can’t have a serious discussion about home-schooling in the United States without bringing up how conservative Christians have used it to shelter their own kids and unfairly disparage public schools.
As I write this, the Post’s article is the most-read article on their website.
It’s about time more people learned about the damage caused by these kinds of Christian extremists—and how some Christians are fighting back.
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