Toxic home-school culture is a Catholic problem too

As stories emerge about harmful ideologies and cultures of abuse in Christian fundamentalist home-school culture, Catholics need to confront these issues in their own communities.
In the Pews

My mother didn’t want to homeschool us, but my father insisted. When she resisted, he manipulated her into continuing.

I pondered this while I read an article this week, “The Revolt of the Christian Home-Schoolers” by Peter Jamison in the Washington Post. Then I watched Shiny Happy People on Amazon Prime. The article focuses on Christina and Aaron Beall, a married couple who were both homeschooled who now choose to send their children to school, which the article author deems a true “rebellion.” The Bealls were raised in strong fundamentalist Christian homes. Likewise, Shiny Happy People revolves around the notorious Duggar family from the show 19 Kids and Counting on TLC. The Duggars likewise homeschooled their children, but they weren’t just run of the mill fundamentalists. They followed the rules of a very cultish organization, the Institute in Basic Life Principles, or IBLP. The institute strongly emphasized children’s total obedience to their parents and the complete submission of women to men.

My family was Catholic, not fundamentalist Protestant. But the reasons behind the decision, my father’s decision, to homeschool my brothers and myself was the same as those noted in the The Revolt of the Christian Home-Schoolers” article: Schools were evil, liberal places, and children needed to be protected from the temptations of secularism. We might be exposed to gay people, or, even worse, sexual education. Jamison sums it up well: “[Christina and Aaron Beall] had been raised to believe that public schools were tools of a demonic social order, government ‘indoctrination camps’ devoted to the propagation of lies and the subversion of Christian families.”

Despite what Catholics tell themselves, American Catholicism shares a great deal with fundamentalist Christianity. Catholics take pride in the idea that their beliefs and values combine faith and reason, that the church supports science instead of balking at it, and that they take part living in the real world rather than hiding from it. But my experience of Catholicism looked nearly identical to what I have since seen of fundamentalist Christianity, particularly when homeschooling comes into play. The most striking of these similarities involves the culture of abuse in both Catholic and fundamentalist homeschooling families. But other similarities concern me just as much: There is often a lack of access to genuine and accurate educational resources; much of the curriculum that does exist is chock full of white supremacist propaganda; there is a huge push to accept a patriarchal and misogynistic culture; and these parents, like the Bealls’ parents, deeply fear the influence of the “big bad world.”


Reading this article truly felt like I was reading along as someone else described my own childhood. Corporal punishment was a huge aspect of my father’s parenting style, just like the Duggars’ and the Bealls’ parents. According to my father, obedience should be “prompt and exact.” I was spanked many times with a wooden spoon as a child. My father expected us to stand there, still and silent, while he beat us. If we cried, he beat us more. If my mother comforted us afterward, he sneered at her, as though her comfort were a sign of weakness. I’m told that, when I was 2 years old, my father spanked me for 45 minutes straight. When he finished, he told my mom “it’s my job to break her will.”

I was shocked to hear these exact words repeated in both the WaPo article and the Shiny Happy People documentary. This highlights that controlling the will of children (and also of women) is the goal of this patriarchal movement. And the way to obtain this control is physical and other forms of abuse. But, as Christina Beall in the Washington Post article explains, we didn’t even realize it was abuse: “It’s specifically a system that is set up to hide the abuse, to make them invisible, to strip them of any capability of getting help. And not just in a physical way . . . At some point, you become so mentally imprisoned you don’t even realize you need help.”

Aside from the culture of abuse it often conceals, homeschooling itself was deeply harmful to me as a child. I struggled with my education. I was an extremely difficult student to my mother, who tried her hardest to teach me with seemingly endless amounts of patience and compassion. But the anxiety I harbored since a very early age made learning difficult, and I often simply refused to do my schoolwork. I bore a deep fear of writing, agonizing over any assignment and often refusing to write at all until I took a community college class my senior year of high school. My first English professor, a distinguished elderly gentleman with long white hair, sat me down and forced me to write my first outline. He taught me what my mother couldn’t—how to prewrite and prepare so that the writing process itself went smoothly and wasn’t rife with fear and paralysis.

While my parents didn’t attend the same conferences as those listed in the Washington Post article, and they never heard of the IBLP of Duggar family fame, they did attend numerous homeschooling conferences. One speaker told the attendees that, even if they stayed home and played cards with their kids everyday, their children would be better off than if they attended school.


My experience with homeschooling is not unique. I discussed the Washington Post article with some friends, and they shared my experience. Shannon Poppe shared, “My family homeschooling ruined any possibility for me and my siblings to excel in any academic ventures because every single one of us missed out on the basic fundamentals. And yet my parents would still say that they made the right decision.” Another member simply stated, “Oh look! It’s my entire childhood!”

And despite many parents’ best attempts to give their homeschooled children every opportunity available, we still missed out. My friend Elizabeth noted that she wishes she could have attended prom, participated in ballet, or been involved with theater. She feels she missed out on experiences that could have shaped her life and even future career due to her education—or lack of it.

Catholic homeschool curriculum itself often amounts to pure propaganda. Our history textbooks taught us to glorify the Crusades and Cortez’s “evangelization” of the natives in South America. It wasn’t until college, cornering a professor in a hallway after a long night class, that I was able to get clear answers about these atrocious acts of Christendom. She pointed out the irony of using religion as an excuse to slaughter another people, in opposition to the teachings of Christ. And she helped me understand the evils of colonization, that Cortez and his men came to the Americas and raped and pillaged their way through the lives of the native peoples, spreading disease and pain throughout their villages. His actions surely were not the noble spreading of the gospel I’d been led to believe.

So where do we go from here? It would be easy for me to tell you simply not to homeschool your kids, but that wouldn’t be helpful. Families are all different, children have different learning needs, and sometimes local schools simply are not sufficient or capable of meeting those needs. And parents now have a real and legitimate fear of school shootings and severe bullying. Sometimes homeschooling is the best option.


I suggest that parents carefully evaluate their reasons for homeschooling. If they are rooted entirely in fear or need for control, then you probably shouldn’t homeschool your kids. But if you choose to homeschool them in order to give them a better education, then do that. Do it intentionally and thoroughly, but do it gently. And be very aware and careful of what is contained in the curriculum you use. Talk to people who were themselves homeschooled about our experiences with particular curriculum and with homeschooling in general. And fully listen to what we have to say about the good, the bad, and the ugly.

But how do you avoid these pitfalls of homeschooling, you may ask. First of all, if you are concerned that you may be acting as a parent out of a need for control, seek out therapy and do the work to ensure you aren’t perpetuating the cycle of abuse with your own children. Evaluate the curriculum you choose and check it for bias. Look for resources that emphasize equity and a full and accurate understanding of real history. And realize that, whether you like it or not, your children must learn to navigate this world. Give them the tools to do so safely and happily, rather than sheltering them from it altogether.

Most of all, love your kids and do what you can to teach them how to encounter life with curiosity, not criticism.

Image: Unsplash/Alexander Grey


About the author

Marie Thomas

Marie Thomas holds a BA in English Writing. Her poetry has been published by the Ethel Zine and the Bureau of Complaint, among others, and her poem "Apples in Hell" was nominated for the Pushcart Prize by Apparition Lit.

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