Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Peer pressure

I remember first starting out as an official home schooling mom, notice of intent to home educate my daughter duly filed with the state. It was so exciting, and so liberating. We were going to have so much fun on this journey of educational discovery together! And for the most part, we have. I am still as big a proponent of home schooling as I ever was, and for the same reasons that I started in the first place.

But as we home school moms have all experienced, it is not long until someone asks "What about socialization?" I wonder how many articles of rebuttal have been written in home school newsletters and magazines to that one question? Many, I am quite certain. I think I wrote a few of them. I know I have read more than a few written by others.

One of several ways home schoolers answer this question is to turn it around to the negative aspects of socialization, and retort that it is exactly what we are trying to avoid! The two most common negative aspects of peer socialization are what we call peer pressure and bullying. I'll write about bullying some other day maybe, but for this post we need a working definition of peer pressure.

Peer pressure: the use of social punishments like ostracization and name calling, to force a peer to conform to group social norms. From dictionary.reference.com :

1.to exclude, by general consent, from society, friendship, conversation, privileges, etc.: His friends ostracized him after his father's arrest.
2.to banish (a person) from his or her native country; expatriate.
3.(in ancient Greece) to banish (a citizen) temporarily by popular vote.
1. shun, snub, blacklist.
1. accept.

When answering our critics, by saying that we will avoid negative peer pressure, we imply a wonderful world (the home school subculture) where no one is excluded, all are accepted, and everyone has a place at the table. We probably even meant it at the beginning, because we wanted very much to believe it was true.

A second part of that answer, is that we don't want our five year olds taught social skills from other five year olds -how awful!- but from emotionally well-adjusted, mentally stable adults (we all think of ourselves that way, no? =).

Those were the initial answers, back when home education was about nurture and education. Then religion crept in and took over, and the answers changed. The religious answer is that we don't want our children, the children of the elect, influenced by the world (i.e. those other children whose families don't go to our church). This was just added to the earlier answers though, and this, dear readers, is where the bait and switch occurs.

There is no way a group can be inclusive and exclusive at the same time. While the Christian home school community was still touting the glories of home schooling as full of freedom and acceptance, they actually practice something quite different.

I believe it was in the early 80s that Christian home schoolers began separating from the greater home school community. They claimed that there was wisdom in having their children only be around people who believed the same things about religion that their own family believed. I myself bought into this at first, though I was often troubled about how this contrasted with God's Word that say we are "sent into the world" (John 17:15-18), we are to go "into all the world" (Mark 16:15), and of course that we should have the same mind of love as the Father, who "so loved the world that He gave his One and Only Son...not... to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him" (John 3:16-17).

These groups required that people sign a statement of faith before they would be allowed to join and partake of any park days, science fairs, community field trips, etc. Ostensibly this was to protect their children from negative peer pressure.

However, unlike in a public school situation, this contact would be very limited in scope. Home schooled children spend almost every waking hour with a parent nearby, unlike the institutional school setting in which parents quickly become irrelevant to a child's school life.

In my mind, the many hours we spent together as a family should make my children more impervious to negative influences rather than more vulnerable to them. So, as a home school parent, I should have much less cause to be concerned about a few hours contact with a possible negative influence than any parent utilizing institutional education. All this isolation not only did not seem necessary, it seemed (and still does to me) unwise and stemming more from human insecurities than Spirit led living.

The longer one's children can grow up not knowing any one outside of your belief system, the less likely they are to ever challenge anything you as a parent teach or believe. The longer one's children can grow up not identifying any one outside of your belief system as a real person, with feelings and hopes and needs like your child's, the less likely they are to ever even try to understand them. This might ensure they will never be deceived by a false belief system, or it might merely ensure they grow up feeling at odds with the world around them, having a besieged mentality, us vs. them where everyone outside of their church is "them". Rather than keeping our children from sin, might it only ensure that the sins they indulge are the same ones we indulge? Abortion or homosexuality are clearly out, but self-righteousness and shunning "weaker" brothers are allowable.

Do you see the switch? While offering freedom from peer pressure and acceptance to all, from the moment a Christian parent signs up with one of these groups the peer pressure is absolute! We don't play with "those people". We don't associate with "those people". And if you choose to open up your own world to those outside, or buck the group think on any issue- dress, literature, movies, non-essential doctrine- you will find out very quickly that peer pressure is alive and well in the Christian home school community! And it is the Christian home schooling parents who are doing the ostracizing and name calling, not the neighborhood kids.

There are two really big problems with the idea of the Christian home school support group as an oasis of faithful believers raising up godly children to live for Jesus.

The biggest problem by far, is that it depends on human effort. As so cleverly portrayed in the movie, The Village, it is impossible to build paradise on earth. The sin nature of humanity can't be socialized away, as it was never a product of negative socialization in the first place. It is intrinsic to humanity, and no amount of doctrinal purity, parental control or isolation from bad influence will keep a child from sin. In fact, it only encourages a false sense of security among members.

While my family took part in a Christian only support group, my daughter was exposed to sexual content from a Christian friend that was shocking! She was only seven years old. The other mother made light excuses for it and brushed the incident off. Again, a child from an entirely different family in that same group, typed the word pornography into our family computer while at our house for a play date. My son was a few months shy of nine years old when this friend exposed him to the concept of pornography! Yet another family had a father arrested for indecent exposure, and still another family for soliciting a minor over the internet.

All these families had signed a statement of faith, and were supposedly vetted as decent Christian people. The reality is that we all fall short of the glory of God, and there is no group on earth that is not going to be full of temptation and stumbling-blocks.

There is no "safe place for socializing" our Christian children, only a Good Shepherd who promises to guide them through the dangers of life safely.

In this matter, Christian parents who choose public school have an advantage over home schooling families, as they have been emphasizing this truth from their children's earliest days. Home school parents, on the other hand, go to conventions where isolation is likened to starting out seedlings in a greenhouse, so that they will be all the stronger when transplanted into the outside world. No one ever mentions the many occasions on which sin comes crashing through the greenhouse walls.

The second huge problem is that one can't accept and exclude at the same time, and so hypocrisy is woven into the very fabric of the concept of Christian home school support groups.

Peer pressure is the root concept of a group exclusively for people who think like us and share our goals, is it not? Ostracization is the key to having such a group, for in including only some we are de facto excluding others. Often those excluded are also believers in Jesus, brothers for whom Christ also died. The longer an exclusive group exists, the tighter and tighter the definition of what is acceptable will become. Again, that is human nature.

So far from protecting our children from peer pressure, it is the single most potent force at work in their young lives. And you, home school parent, are in control of that force and accountable to God as to what use it is put to in the lives of your children. And not only the lives of your own children, you are also accountable to God for the way you have wielded this force against those you have ostracized in the name of Jesus. That is a heavy responsibility.

While Paul exhorts us to accept one another in order to bring praise to God (Romans 15:7) and Jesus calls us to love even those we perceive as enemies (Matthew 5:44-45) so that we may be "sons of our Father in heaven", exclusive Christian home school groups have exactly the opposite agenda. The very first meeting they will have to hold will be to define who is a Christian and who is not.

This is why there are Catholic only home school support groups and Catholic-excluding home school support groups. This is why the children of Jehovah's Witness home school families cannot play on the playground with the children of Protestant home school families, and therefore will grow up without any positive evangelical influence in their lives.

But that is only the start. Before long, the families that allow non-Christian music will be whispered out of the group. Next to go will be the families who allow non-Christian literature and movies. Families that vote Democrat should keep that very, very quiet, even if they believe it is their faith in Christ that compels their vote. Jealousy also plays a part in this whisper game, and in the end the only safe families are the ones who whisper.

Each group gets more and more exclusive over time, so that eventually even the families who celebrate Christmas will be excluded by the neo-Puritans who eschew Christmas. If the group rejects the new stricter social construct, the more strict will, in keeping with the whole idea behind a Christian home school support group, separate themselves so that their children will only be socializing with children from like-minded families.

My beloved brethren, this ought not be so. And yet it is. It plainly is. Peer pressure: the dark side of the exclusive Christian home school support group.

John 13:34-35 A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.


  1. I know that we (the Church) has, to some degree or another, always been divided. But I feel these days like we're absolutely splintered, and it makes me sad and anxious. There seem to be so many more reasons to "exclude" than ever before, or at least that's my perception. There are more lines drawn in the sand than ever before, it seems:

    -patriarchal vs. complementarian vs. egalitarian
    -homeschooler vs. private schooler vs. public schooler
    -SAHM vs. work-outside-the-home mom
    -republican vs. independent vs. democrat
    -all kinds of minutia, such as dresses vs. pants, head coverings, dating vs. courtship, you name it - the list is endless

    You named several others in your insightful post, but nearly all involve the setting apart of others from us based on our judgments of them. Rarely are these judgments clarified with the judg-ee. Conclusions are leapt to and the whispering begins ("Oh, her child has a secular piano teacher, she must not care about adhering to a Biblical worldview" or "they're liberals [dreaded insult] because they don't see everything the same way 'we' do"). No longer do we have the freedom to come to different conclusions about non-essential matters - it's either this way or that way or you're out.

    Spiritual "bullies" get to push everyone else around by simply raising "concerns" about their salvation, or calling into question their adherence to issues like inerrancy, often for simply just raising questions, as any curious, truth-seeking Berean should. But rather than being viewed in that legitimate way through a hermeneutic of generosity and grace, their questions are seen as "dangerous" and "dark".

    These bullies are encouraged in this because everyone else is afraid of becoming their target, so little or nothing is said. It is easier to side with the bully(ies) than to deal with coming into their crosshairs.

    So instead of having liberty in Christ, we find bondage, and continue to choose to live under the weight of law instead of grace. The discouragement and utter joylessness of it is oppressive and soul-draining, and ultimately so hurtful to so many.

    This ought not be so!

  2. Yes, it is much more desirable, if group acceptance is needed (and we do need to belong to a circle of friends somewhere) to be the whisperer or an ally of the whisperer than to become the target of the whispers.

    Erika describes how her sister used this truth to her advantage in this post from No Longer Qivering:


  3. Thanks for this post. It explains so much. Homeschooling was not an option for us due to things outside of my control. But various siblings do homeschool, and I see their families becoming more and more rigid and exclusive. One of my sisters is so changed, I have basically lost a sister. We see less and less of her and her children, and have less and less in common with them as well. While they are still friendly, because we know of others who are much closer to their way of thinking than we are, who they ostracized, criticized, and threatened to excommunicate, we also know they are thinking similar thoughts of us.

    Oddly, I've seen the same phenomenon in church groups, especially if most of them went to a church school, but we did not. You just didn't fit if you didn't conform to the way they did things. In another church group most of the women were into cooking and homemaking. A novelist who had an artist daughter just didn't fit in very well.

    What I'm seeing in almost every church group is a pulling away from people who don't think exactly like they do.

    Yet, I find I'm just as guilty. In my need to find a safe place to heal, I have little tolerance for those who throw out verbal jabs or just gave "the look" because I left my husband even though he wasn't "abusive enough" to their way of thinking.

    Are others experiencing similar disrespect from "outsiders?" It sounds to me like the church is spending much more time wounding its own than offering balm and healing to its hurting ones. Perhaps we need more teaching on offering compassion and mercy, with a thimbleful of truth, instead of offering a truckload of truth and a cold shoulder.

  4. Ezekiel 34:17-30

    This passage tells me a) it's been happening for a long time now b) God is well aware c) Jesus himself communes in a special, close way with those who are pushed out of Christian community.

    It also tells me to watch out that I don't neglect and reject the weak and the wounded, because God will judge between the sheep.

    Roman 12-14 are great reads to help me relate to my bullying brothers and sisters in a right way. As much as it depends on me, live in peace. Don't start arguments. Remember they are accountable to God, not me. And pray.

    I'm working on it, I would not claim to always practice these ways of relating to bullies, but I'm working on it.

  5. This is so true! I remember learning that the Pilgrims went to Holland first, but came here to get away from the worldly Dutch. (I wonder if the prevalent theme of American colonists righteously running away from Old World vice is as prominent in school curricula as it was in our home school books!)

    Education is my priority so I'm in favor of home schooling as an option. But college was such a healing experience for me after growing up in that divisive environment. I hope that things are getting better than they were in the eighties and nineties!

  6. Me too!

    My son belongs to a wonderful eclectic home school group that is NOT religious in nature. But alas, it also is invitation only.

    I don't know if it is invitation only because of the problems that zealots bring (whether they are unschooling zealots, religious zealots, etc.) or simply because it gets harder to manage if it gets too big. Also exclusive groups have a mystique about them that makes them seem more special?

    I was just thrilled he was invited. When we decided we could no longer hang out with the sheltering religious home schoolers (too many cold shoulders, it wasn't working any way) for awhile he didn't have any home school friends.

    But he had neighborhood friends galore, so it wasn't like he was isolated. Still, this group of kids who accept one another are really good kids. I'm glad they are in his life. See my post about Christianity, home schooling and a funeral from the January archives. =)