Traumatic Homeschooling: How Evangelicals Use Education to Totalize

The following is the text of the speech I gave at the Conference on Religious Trauma on April 30, 2022.

I’d like to begin by thanking Janice for inviting me to speak here and I’d like to thank my fellow panelists as well as Caleb for moderating. Religious trauma is such an important topic and childhood education is a key vehicle for passing that trauma on from generation to generation.

I will speak to you today about homeschooling, specifically evangelical homeschooling. I will speak about homeschooling because homeschooled children and alumni are intimately familiar with religious trauma. This is because the vast majority of homeschoolers are evangelical Christians. Consequently, many homeschooled children have experienced corporal punishment, threats of eternal hellfire, educational neglect, molestation and rape, and other human rights abuses—all in the name of glorifying the evangelical god. 

In fact, due to the intentionally deregulated state of homeschool laws in the United States, homeschool parents have nearly absolute power over what they can do to and teach their children. Homeschooling has thus become a tool for what psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton has called “totalism.” Totalism is the end goal of authoritarian and totalitarian movements and organizations: it is the total control of human action and belief.  By enabling homeschoolers to use homeschooling totalistically, deregulated homeschooling has created the perfect storm for abuse and neglect to thrive in homeschooling communities.

To understand how this became the case, a short history lesson is in order.

From the very beginning of the modern homeschooling movement, paths diverged. In the 1960s and 1970s, John Holt—a liberal and early advocate for children’s rights—began calling for the liberation of children from institutional, especially public, schools. His books How Children Fail and How Children Learn provoked controversy for their criticisms of compulsory education for children. Holt advocated for an “Underground Railroad” that would help children leave institutional schools and pursue their own interests.

At the same time that Holt was imagining a child-centric form of homeschooling, R.J. Rushdoony was similarly calling for the removal of children from public schools. Rushdoony called them “government schools.” But Rushdoony had a very different vision of education than Holt. Rushdoony saw education as a tool of dominion, as a way to re-Christianize the United States. Known as the father of Christian Reconstructionism, Rushdoony advocated for the destruction of democracy and replacing it with a theocracy based on his understanding of Mosaic law. According to Rushdoony, government should never be in the education business. That business belongs solely to parents. For Rushdoony, then, homeschooling was parent-centric. It was a way to shore up parental rights, not children’s rights.

While homeschooling began with diverse founders, it was ultimately Rushdoony’s vision that dominated. White evangelicals were desperate in the 1980s for a way to teach their children in the ways they wanted: free from secular and non-white influences. Thus they flooded the homeschooling movement. By the mid-1980s, white evangelicals had solidly commandeered the movement, becoming the most dominant group to choose homeschooling. This transformed the movement from a revolt against the institutionalization of schooling into a project to build a parallel, Christian society.

By 1990, 85-90% of homeschoolers were conservative Christians. When Salon reported on homeschooling in 2000, all four “pillars of homeschooling” listed (Michael Farris, Sue Welch, Brian Ray, and Gregg Harris) were evangelicals. And probably most importantly, the most powerful homeschool lobbying organization, HSLDA, was run (and continues to be run) exclusively by white evangelical men.

Founded in 1983, HSLDA has fought for decades to promote what HSLDA attorney Michael Donnelly refers to as a “minimalistic regulatory approach” to homeschooling in the United States. In short, HSLDA believes homeschooling should be entirely free of any government oversight. This parental rights absolutism is a fundamental conviction that has roots in Rushdoony’s worldview of Christian Reconstructionism, a worldview shared by HSLDA founder Michael Farris (now President of the designated hate group Alliance Defending Freedom, or ADF).

HSLDA’s efforts have been extraordinarily successful. There is no federal oversight of homeschooling whatsoever. Homeschooling is regulated only on the state level, and most states have either minimal or no oversight over homeschooling. An analysis of state homeschool laws by ProPublica in 2015 found “fewer than half require any kind of evaluation or testing of homeschooled children” and “just ten require parents to have a high school degree.” Only two states prohibit convicted child abusers like child molesters from homeschooling. There are no states that require homeschooled children to have regular contact with mandatory reporters. When states do have minimal oversight, most of the time the oversight has few to no enforcement mechanisms.

This lack of oversight has essentially created a loophole for child abusers: child abusers can remove their children from public school during open child abuse or neglect investigations and thereby eliminate the chance that their children will ever be in contact with mandatory reporters again. Because homeschooling has become the perfect way to isolate and hide an abused or neglected child from those who could help the child, it has become a breeding ground for crimes against children. 

Since 1986, there have been at least 172 child abuse and neglect fatalities in homeschooling settings—suggesting homeschooled children have a greater risk of dying from child abuse than other children. A 2014 survey of 3,702 homeschool alumni also found that around half (51%) experienced childhood abuse and a further 26% reported knowing another homeschooled child who was abused. And a survey of extreme cases of child torture conducted by pediatrician Barbara Knox in 2014 found “47% [of the tortured children] who had been enrolled in school were removed under the auspice of ‘homeschooling.’” “Homeschooling,” Knox observed, “appears to have been designed to further isolate the child.”

As the first few generations of homeschooled children have come of age, we have begun to hear and see the results of deregulated homeschooling—or as HSLDA’s Donnelly calls it, a “minimalistic regulatory approach” to homeschooling. Starting in the early 2010s, homeschooled children, by then adults, began calling for reform based on their experiences of abuse and neglect. 

As someone homeschooled kindergarten through high school graduation by evangelical parents, I am intimately familiar with this history. I lived it. I am also very familiar with the growing movement of homeschool alumni who are speaking out about their experiences and demanding communal and legal reforms to protect future generations of children. I helped found several national nonprofit organizations to fight for the rights of homeschooled children. And what I see as the common thread between all the stories of abuse and neglect in homeschooling is the issue of totalism.

Totalism is a concept first developed by psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton in his 1961 book Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism. Totalism is related to totalitarianism, and signifies a psychological form of totalitarianism — the totalitarian monitoring and control of another individual’s behaviors and thoughts. Lifton uses the term to describe the attributes of ideological movements and organizations that aim for total control over people’s behaviors and thoughts. While these movements and organizations may vary in design and goals, they follow common patterns and cause predicable types of psychological damage to those within them.

Evangelical Christians—as well as other extremist groups—are drawn to homeschooling because it gives them either absolute or nearly absolute power over their children. They would describe this power as “freedom”—and indeed, to some extent that is true. Marginalized groups like Black families are also attracted to homeschooling because it does give them freedom to teach things public schools cannot or will not teach, such as Black and Native American history. But that freedom is a double-edged sword. By giving absolute power to parents, homeschooling can be used to control children as much as it is used to free children. And evangelical Christians are interested in control.

Evangelical Christians are interested in creating a parallel society. They are interested in creating safe spaces, essentially, where their children will never encounter people or ideas that contradict their teachings until those children are properly equipped to defend those teachings and not stray from them despite any evidence that they are wrong. This is why evangelical Christians invest significantly in fields of study like apologetics and worldview studies. There are books and homeschool curricula and summer camps and college programs all dedicated to keeping children and young adults from straying from white evangelical Christian values—usually defined as white supremacy, Christian Nationalism, capitalism, and the supremacy of heterosexual marriage and sexuality.

By giving evangelical Christians absolute power over their children, homeschooling enables and empowers these parents to create these parallel societies in the most efficient and effective manner. Homeschooling parents literally control every aspect of their children’s lives, for better or for worse. For evangelical parents, this means they can ensure their children never leave their safe spaces until the parents feel confident the children are adequately totalized. Should children ever become rebellious or ask too many questions, it’s off to worldview camp or a troubled teen program for them. 

I regularly hear from fellow homeschool alumni that they literally never encountered someone who was not a white evangelical until they were well into adulthood. That is how successfully white evangelicals have mastered totalism. With the existence of many white evangelical colleges and graduate schools, this parallel society has the potential to cocoon a person from birth until their mid-20s, even their 30s. 

But cocoon is the wrong word. This parallel society isn’t something that protects children from the elements and predators until the children become exactly who they want to be. This parallel society constricts. That is, it slowly but surely constricts children into the model of what white evangelicals are supposed to be: Christian Nationalists, fervent capitalists, and in no way queer.

I know I don’t have to explain to you that constricting children for the sake of religious beliefs causes trauma. You all know that constricting children into what adults want and need is the best way to traumatize a child for life. Add religion on top of that and you get the circumstances that make conferences on religious trauma an increasingly common phenomenon. 

But let me take this a step further and suggest that when you intentionally inflict religious trauma on children it is child abuse. And that’s what evangelicals are doing here: they are intentionally using totalistic education and all its related tools to traumatize children in the directions they believe children should grow and mature. You don’t want unbelievers, so you threaten eternal hellfire. You don’t want talking back, so you beat your children. You don’t want independent thinking, so you break children’s wills. And you definitely don’t want your children to realize how isolated and abnormal their childhoods are, so you homeschool and your children only interact with others who live through and accept similar traumas.

Intentionally inflicting religious trauma on children is what Janet Heimlich and the Child-Friendly Faith Project call “religious child maltreatment.” It is real and it is pervasive in homeschooling circles and, make no mistake, it is devastating. Furthermore, there’s no excuse for it. Religion doesn’t have to hurt children. You always have a choice whether to use religion to liberate children or to radicalize and traumatize them.

I know it is common these days for evangelicals and other conservatives to carelessly throw around the word “grooming,” and as a child abuse survivor myself and someone with a Master’s in Child Protection, this infuriates me. The carelessness is bad in itself. But the worst part is knowing that the whole point of evangelicals’ parallel society is to break their children’s wills, to disempower them, to make them like clay—moldable and pliant to adults’ wishes. And I cannot think of a better way to prepare a child for future abuse and trauma than that. 

By stripping children of their wills, by supplanting their children’s unique and diverse identities with the identity demanded by white evangelical leaders and other power holders, evangelicalism is teaching—and homeschooling is enabling and empowering it—that children have no rights to themselves. That they are not their own. That they owe their bodies, minds, and souls to those more powerful than them.

As a child protection professional, it doesn’t evade me that these messages are textbook definitions of either grooming or outright emotional or religious abuse. Yet these messages are also central aspects of many religious teachings, especially when it comes to evangelicalism. There are many beliefs inherent to evangelicalism that require adults to intentionally inflict religious trauma on children. That’s more than a red flag. It’s a sign that the foundation of evangelicalism is compromised and corrupted.

And unless we take a serious look at how evangelicals and other religious extremists take advantage of childhood education—including homeschooling, private schools, and public charter schools—as a primary vehicle for inflicting religious child maltreatment, we will be powerless to stop it. The lack of any meaningful oversight over childhood education when it is draped in religion cannot be sustained except by the blood and tears of more children. 

This is why it is so important to include and listen to the voices of those who experienced and survived and are now speaking up about the real-life impacts of education that’s all about what adults want children to be, rather than education that’s motivated to find out who children really are and what they want to learn. So I am grateful for being included here; I am grateful for the voices of fellow homeschool alumni here as well like Jerusha and Luna. I hope you hear in our stories not just our own pain, but our hope that we can do better for future generations of children.

Thank you.

Published by R.L. Stollar

R.L. Stollar is a child liberation theologian and an advocate for children and abuse survivors. The author of an upcoming book on child liberation theology, The Kingdom of Children, Ryan has an M.H.S. in Child Protection from Nova Southeastern University and an M.A. in Eastern Classics from St. John’s College.

29 thoughts on “Traumatic Homeschooling: How Evangelicals Use Education to Totalize

  1. You don’t know what you’re talking about to say “many” homeschooled kids were/are abused. Get your data right: and stop spreading lies. You are clearly unhappy that you were homeschooled. Fine. But grow up and be a man and deal with it. Leave the homeschool community alone. You are a plague.

    1. Evangelical homeschooling is the plague. Take it from another person who was severely abused in the Christian homeschool community, Pretty much every kid I grew up with in the Christian homeschool co-ops was also severely physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually abused. The trauma that results is severe and lifelong. Brainwashing children is a very dark path for a parent to take just to control their kid.

      1. Your lone experience doesn’t mean that’s what happens everywhere. Extrapolation from personal experience to gross generalities is a sign of intellectual laziness.

      2. BTW, brainwashing children IS a dark path. Hence the reason to get the out of the cesspools known as “public schools.”

    2. Your comments support the claim of abuse–calling a suffering human being a “plague” is hardly Christian. “Whatever you do unto others, you do also to Me.”

      1. No. The whole notion that the Christian homeschool community is a den of abusers is what is anti-Christ and pathological. Those who believe such nonsense need mental help because they (you) are living in la-la land. Real statistics demonstrate that homeschooled children are abused in FAR LESS percentages (per capita) than kids who attend institutional school. Those poor schooled kids are abused tremendously by their parents AND by teachers and school staff. While any real abuse is immoral, it is equally immoral for all you entitled fools to continue to push the lie that homeschooling breeds abuse. If you were really abused in a homeschool, get help and move on and stop spreading lies that “most” homeschooled kids are abused and trying to destroy all the good homeschooling families. If you continue to spread such trash, you will answer for it one day.

      2. R.L. Stollar – Los Angeles, California – R.L. Stollar is a child liberation theologian and an advocate for children and abuse survivors. The author of an upcoming book on child liberation theology, The Kingdom of Children, Ryan has an M.H.S. in Child Protection from Nova Southeastern University and an M.A. in Eastern Classics from St. John’s College.
        R.L. Stollar says:

        No one said “most” homeschooled kids are abused.

      3. You do. And people in the anti-homeschool organizations with which you’ve been associated do. Elizabeth Bartholet says it too. And you’re all grossly wrong. You also know the truth – i.e., that the percentage of homeschooled kids who are actually abused is minuscule and the percentage of kids abused by their teachers in school (as well as their parents even if they attend school) is quite large. But you have an agenda to destroy homeschooling so you exaggerate and lie. Stop it. Live your life and leave homeschoolers alone.

      4. R.L. Stollar – Los Angeles, California – R.L. Stollar is a child liberation theologian and an advocate for children and abuse survivors. The author of an upcoming book on child liberation theology, The Kingdom of Children, Ryan has an M.H.S. in Child Protection from Nova Southeastern University and an M.A. in Eastern Classics from St. John’s College.
        R.L. Stollar says:

        I don’t, though. Show me one place where I say that.

      5. You insinuate it every time you write on the topic; the examples are too numerous to detail here because I’d have to cite nearly everything I’ve seen of your “work” on this topic. Even in this piece, you make gross over-generalizations about evangelical homeschoolers and turn phrases to make readers believe what you say applies to ALL (not just the few who may have experienced what you describe). But you’re blind to your own sick bias, and that’s pathetic. As a public schooled- child who is a survivor of real abuse myself -bat the hands of several relatives and a public school teacher – I suggest you choose maturity and simply get “revenge” by living a good life. Leave homeschoolers alone.

        I commented here because your piece sickened me, even though I knew that you would be unteachable. But now I will employ the principles of Matthew 10.14 even though you will likely take that as “abuse” too.

      6. R.L. Stollar – Los Angeles, California – R.L. Stollar is a child liberation theologian and an advocate for children and abuse survivors. The author of an upcoming book on child liberation theology, The Kingdom of Children, Ryan has an M.H.S. in Child Protection from Nova Southeastern University and an M.A. in Eastern Classics from St. John’s College.
        R.L. Stollar says:

        So I ask for just one example and you come back nothing but spit.

        Rest assured, I will not leave homeschoolers alone. In fact, you personally give me motivation to continue another day. So thank you for the encouragement. ❤️

  2. And you’re data coming from a homeschooling website is prettttttttty laughable. That’s like Christians attempting to prove their religion via their own bible lmfao

    1. R.L. Stollar – Los Angeles, California – R.L. Stollar is a child liberation theologian and an advocate for children and abuse survivors. The author of an upcoming book on child liberation theology, The Kingdom of Children, Ryan has an M.H.S. in Child Protection from Nova Southeastern University and an M.A. in Eastern Classics from St. John’s College.
      R.L. Stollar says:

      I mean, it’s listed under the “Homeschooling” section of this website and my name is all over the survey. It’s not exactly a secret.

      1. You do realise not everyone who comes to your website reads multiple sections? Of course you do, you have site analytics like any other blogger. By saying “A 2014 survey of 3,702 homeschool alumni also found that around half (51%) experienced childhood abuse” rather than “a study I conducted among the homeschool abuse survivor community found 51% experienced abuse” you make it sound like the study had a much less biased sample than it did, and hide your own agency in making the methodological choices that led to the result – I’m sure you admit that 51% is not a representative figure for abuse even for evangelical Christian homeschooled children. You didn’t even link to it, so unless a reader happened to poke around on the rest of your website and run across the resources, they wouldn’t have an easy way to check, and most people would not assume from your writing style that you are a researcher.

  3. JessicaMarieBaumgartner – I am an addict of the written word who loves to write and read others' work. Although a bit of a bookworm, I can't help but go out and enjoy my own adventures before coming home to sit down and engage in a story.
    JessicaMarieBaumgartner says:

    What a load of bull

    1. R.L. Stollar – Los Angeles, California – R.L. Stollar is a child liberation theologian and an advocate for children and abuse survivors. The author of an upcoming book on child liberation theology, The Kingdom of Children, Ryan has an M.H.S. in Child Protection from Nova Southeastern University and an M.A. in Eastern Classics from St. John’s College.
      R.L. Stollar says:

      What is?

  4. It’s insane to me that it’s 2022 and people in the comments here are still so caught up in their own cognitive dissonance to be able to acknowledge that they’re traumatizing their own kids. Growing up, my mother convinced me and my siblings that her Catholic education degree made her a better qualified teacher than was available in public schools. We were told that we were getting a better education in homeschooling than the public school system ever had. We were told that it didn’t matter that we weren’t getting any kind of education in science or modern history. The ‘program’ that was used consisted of a weekly list of chapters from 40-50 year old books that we would be assigned to read. That was it. No testing. No field trips. No kind of socialization of any form. I’m dealing with the trauma of realizing that ABA-style discipline and corporal punishment was woven throughout my schooling up till I pressured my mother to let me attend high school, out of an attempt to ‘cure’ my and my siblings’ autism. Autism was taught to me as an ‘evil word’, one that was more of a slur than anything else, and I didn’t actually understand that it was a medical diagnosis until I went to college. As a result of abandoning the abuse, my family cut off financial support halfway through my bachelor’s degree and I was barely able to finish it thanks to the support of my fiancée. Thank you for the work you do, and I am so thankful that there are people out there who are fighting the good fight for kids who were in the place I was.

  5. I am a homeschooling parent that is homeschooling, and graduating my final student this year, as well as being a homeschool graduate myself. Sadly, I have to agree with the writer of this blog post. Homeschooling is the tool that is often used as an abuse tactic, while not abusive in itself. It is how it is done. The mindset of many, that choose to homeschool, is abusive. I volunteer in a domestic violence support group, and the worst cases often have the same tales. Their abuser chose to isolate them, homeschool the children and then the gamut continues in the ways they abuse. The highly religious circles that refuse to hear of any type of wrongdoing, leads to people that choose to be ignorant.

    When we see a post like this and right away are defensive, I would ask yourself why? Is it because you feel attacked? I homeschool and I do not. I am not part of the demographic they were referring to. I am not an abuser, and my children have never been isolated, nor were raised in a hyper-religious circle.

    The tides are changing as more and more people are homeschooling, not for religious purposes, but for other reasons. It is going to cause change that will anger those that have been able to use this to do wrong for many years.

    1. homeschooling is often used to isolate and teach only fundamentals that the parents view as necessary. It leads to less socialized kids that can’t cope with people that dont have the same background, religion, socio-economic status or race as the homeschooled child. I find that so sad because the children miss out on so many rich friendships and experiences and become mini versions of their narrow minded parents. the education itself is often sub-par as there is no national standard. I choose to send my kids to public schools. I live in the burbs so my kids have received a class-act education filled with diverse friends, school dances, football games and extra curricular post school hour activities. My daughter was valedictorian. We are African-American (thereby making my 3 kids Black) and have a large rainbow of friends that have other beliefs (our community has a large Jewish presence). I love it!! Homeschoolers do you but realize your kids often secretly wish they could just GO TO SCHOOL! When they get to college you’ll see a difference.

  6. I am sorry you are in pain. The truth is that the soul at enmity with God will never find rest. Rest is in Christ alone. You can wail, gnash and throw a fit but it is true. I was not homeschooled, nor was I raised in a Christian home. I came to faith at 34 and He changed my life, or I should say- gave me life. I homeschooled my children initially for some of the reasons you mentioned. I felt that 2+2=4: if I did this, that and the other I’d get the results I wanted. I WAS trying to control my children though I didn’t realize it. I wanted to save them from the heartache and self destruction of a godless life. I had to come to terms with the truth that faith is a marriage between that person and Christ. It requires a personal testimony of salvation…you cannot teach it to someone. You can equip them but salvation requires that person coming to the end of themselves and realizing in their heart of hearts they truly are lost, need a savior and that Jesus did in fact die for them, loves them and that He alone is enough. It is a marriage of the soul to the King of Kings and LORD of LORDS. We cannot, no matter how bad we want it for someone bring them even to that point of decision. Only Christ can. He is the bridegroom, the proposal is a personal one, and we answer only to Him. Of 4 of my children one is currently in love with the Lord, 1 is angry at Him and in rebellion, 1 is running from God, and 1 believes but has Jesus on the back burner. Anyway, homeschooling was a blessing. And all my kids homeschool their children, even the one in rebellion. Homeschooling probably taught me more than it did my kids. I learned I am not the Savior. I learned that my children are a gift to me and to relax. I learned I can trust God, that His arm is not too short that he cannot save, that He is able to save to the uttermost those who come to Him thru Christ Jesus, and that He is above all FAITHFUL. If they will come to Him by any means, He will save them. He didnt die on a cross, suffering that agony just to forget about them. And if they don’t, if they continue to reject the Holy Spirit and his prices, they will not heed me. He is worthy. I continue to homeschool one of my grandchildren now, but the fear is gone as well as the need for control. I will still teach him the Truth because that is Faithfulness on my part. I will do my best to introduce him to the Savior and make sure he knows what Jesus did for him on that cross and what that means and what it means if he rejects that. I will give him an above average education. And I will teach him about propoganda, and he has free will, that it is a gift from God. There is, like you wrote above, freedom that is in Christ alone: freedom from sin and the dominion of the sin nature, freedom to rest from self effort, freedom to receive and give true love. We also have the freedom to choose not to enter into communion with God and to reject all He died to give us.

    1. R.L. Stollar – Los Angeles, California – R.L. Stollar is a child liberation theologian and an advocate for children and abuse survivors. The author of an upcoming book on child liberation theology, The Kingdom of Children, Ryan has an M.H.S. in Child Protection from Nova Southeastern University and an M.A. in Eastern Classics from St. John’s College.
      R.L. Stollar says:

      …that’s a lot of preaching to a theologian.

  7. I am a liberal homeschooling parent who stopped homeschooling during the pandemic (because some members of the homeschool co-op we attended presented to us conspiracy theories about the virus, vaccines, and wearing masks) and enrolled my kids in a progressive charter arts school because it was more difficult to go from homeschooling to public schools directly after years of homeschooling. My husband and I both homeschooled our kids using secular curriculum that was literature based (Moving Beyond the Page is wonderful) because the traditional homeschool curriculums were not rigorous and denied basic science. My husband took a lot of flak for homeschooling because that is “women’s work.” The patriarchy and white supremacy are bedrocks of the HS community based on my observations from within the HS network. My husband and I are both educators and started homeschooling because we had a child with a medical condition and then fell in love with being with our kids. Our kids’ transition to a progressive school was relatively easy, but I suspect this is because we are liberal and our kids were interacting with the real world all along. However, Stollar’s reflections on what is occurring in many homeschool families are accurate and confirm much of what I observed. I am writing only because as someone who is NOT an Evangelical, I found it nearly impossible to find curriculum and a community that wanted to grow up smart, loving, compassionate Christians who are living in the 21st century.

    1. R.L. Stollar – Los Angeles, California – R.L. Stollar is a child liberation theologian and an advocate for children and abuse survivors. The author of an upcoming book on child liberation theology, The Kingdom of Children, Ryan has an M.H.S. in Child Protection from Nova Southeastern University and an M.A. in Eastern Classics from St. John’s College.
      R.L. Stollar says:

      Thank you for the comment and sharing your experience!

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