Two Messages that Children Internalize that Contribute to Bullying in Patriarchal Church and Homeschool Groups

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HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Sarah Henderson’s blog Feminist in Spite of Them. It was originally published on her blog on January 4, 2014.

Homeschooled children sometimes experience bullying from peers. Part of this stems from the messages that children absorb about themselves.

1. Children respond to the tiered authority by owning the message that they are the not as good as other people and exist to serve people who appear to be more powerful than they are;

2. Children respond to the opposite message that they are the best and brightest and most privileged and enact that power on others. 

I have mentioned the issue of bullying in homeschool groups in passing in a previous post, but bullying in homeschooling families and homeschool groups is a serious issue. In a well-meaning homeschooling family from a conservative background, there are several patterns, such as adherence to patriarchal family systems and the sense of responsibility held by the parents to teach their children to succeed in life and grow up to be adults with the same mindset and goals as the parents. There is also often a commitment to having a large family.

This creates unique family power dynamics.

Depending on how the family works, they will send a message to their children that corresponds with one of the point above: that the child is valued and special, or that the child is part of a plan that has nothing to do with the child.

Socialization has become almost a joke to both sides of the homeschooling debate, but the reality is that children who are homeschooled spend less time with other non-siblings, and sometimes this is even the goal of homeschooling. In patriarchal families, children are often authority-tiered in birth order, although preference in the ranking is sometimes given to boys. Sometimes this happens in large families due to the difficulty in parenting large numbers of children, and mothers bring in older daughters to take on various aspects of homemaking and parenting.

There is a large amount of anecodotal evidence that speaks to how damaging sibling parenting can be. There is a series posted by Heather Doney that tells the stories of sister-moms. Many of the personal stories shared on both No Longer Quivering and Homeschoolers Anonymous also outline the difficulties of being an adult who helped raise their own siblings. Children who are part of this tiered authority find themselves always as part of a ranked system, which is different from the experience of children who attend school, who are grouped with peers in spite of status struggles.

Homeschool groups and church “families” are touted as a significant source of socialization opportunities for homeschooled children. However, this means that children who spend most of their time in a tiered family structure are then tossed together as an artificial peer group and left to find their own status among themselves, which is one of the things that some homeschooling parents say they are attempting to avoid. The source for the information in this post is lived experience.

Children in homeschooling groups and church groups vie for status at the expense of each other, just as children do in public and private schools. They put each other down, and use similar ways of determining popularity as public schooled children do, including appearance, status of parents, ownership of desired items, and overall apparent confidence levels. They sometimes use physical strength to exert control as well. Parents do not always see the bullying but it does take place.

However, homeschooled children in these families are also subject to real responsibility/authority status and a tight social circle that is includes all available peers.

Girls sometimes compete to exhibit which is the more capable parent, and it is not uncommon to see these children carrying other children around, usually their own siblings or the young children of family friends. Because it is valued for girls to learn to perform homemaking tasks, girls are put on display to demonstrate proficiency in cooking and parenting, which creates resentment between peers. Financial struggles are a common problem among families with a stay-at-home mother and many children, so girls find themselves ranked in their peer groups according to whose parents have time to contribute to social activities and by common status symbols such as clothing. These families also share clothing, so children with a lower financial status have to wear the cast-off clothing of the more affluent families.

Very young boys in patriarchal families do not always realize that they are being groomed to take part in a power structure, but they do attempt to exert power over each other as much as public schooled boys do. The big difference here between public schooled children and homeschooled children is that since children tend to be part of a self-regulating system (and the parents are busy) there is not as much supervision and few complaints. As stated above, children either internalize that they exist to serve or exist to control. This results in children who are taught to stick to their ranking and do not usually object to unfairness.

Mental health problems are often not identified and treated in children in these circles, and some of the aspects of patriachal homeschooling life may contribute to the development of mental health disorders. This leaves suffering children even more vulnerable to bullying since children suffering from depression and similar struggles may only appear to be quiet and awkward, whereas in a public school they may have been identified as needing a teacher-mentor or recommended to see a mental health professional. An additional problem unique to church and homeschool groups that prevents children from being protected from bullying is that there is no central figure that children can turn to if their life isn’t working like a teacher or principal. Each parent usually has faith in their own children, and all parents in the church group or homeschool group has faith in their system, and it threatens their choices if the system doesn’t work, so there is simply no room for a bullied child to seek help.

Please share your input regarding the differences between bullying in public schools and patriarchal church and homeschool groups!


  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    As stated above, children either internalize that they exist to serve or exist to control. This results in children who are taught to stick to their ranking and do not usually object to unfairness.

    AKA You either Hold the Whip or you Feel the Whip, no other way exists, and that is the way things have always been and always will be.
    Hold the Whip or Feel the Whip.

  • This a sad yet interesting post.

    I was curious if you might have any experience or thoughts on how relational aggression works between homeschooled girls in groups with both conservative girls being raised to be “keepers at home” and secular girls who are told the sky is the limit and may also be interested and involved with “masculine” interests; especially sports and STEM? Would there be more friction or a different dynamic to the bullying in such a circumstance?

    • Interesting question. I’m trying to think of a natural way such a meeting of secular and “keepers at home in training” girls would be thrown together in such a way. Do you have an example?

      The only relatable situation I can think of is meeting at a store, in which case they typically ignore each other, but they aren’t really grouped then. By their very nature such girls aren’t usually involved in sports or other secular teams, schools, or outings of any kind that would have them rubbing shoulders with secular girls since their parents structure their lives to avoid this.

      • A military sponsored homeschool class would be one example. All children with a sponsor parent assigned to that particular post are eligible to attend the class and being that homeschooling is fairly common in the military world for the benefits afforded with frequent moves, an odd mix of secular and religious homeschoolers are likely to take advantage of such a service. This may be especially true on/near more isolated installations where homeschool groups are limited, if they exist at all.

        I realize that may be a poor example due to being too specific for a more general question.

  • @Gracie – The nearest example I can think of for interaction between homeschool and secular girls is in churches with homeschooled and public school kids. They tend to sort on those lines as they don’t have much in common.

    Another thing I’ve realized is that I’ve been willing to put up with all kinds of abuse just because the other option is loneliness. If you complain of a kid’s behavior in a homeschool setting chances are your mom will complain to that kid’s mom and then the moms will get in a fight and you and that other kid won’t be allowed to interact. When you only know one or two kids your age this is a really high cost.

    • Thank you for indulging my curiosity MyOwnPerson. Your first observation about ‘self-sorting’ is very interesting.

      I’m sorry to read about your experiences and hope I don’t sound condescending for saying so as that is not my intention. My daughter may be going through a similar experience right now but is not yet old enough to fully articulate her feelings about what is happening . An only child and the only secular/agnostic child in most homeschool settings is a rough combination and perhaps not healthy for long-term social development.

  • To all you homeschooled commenters on this post: Your comments about your upbringing, so criminally abusive both physically and psychologically, are incredibly insightful. Your strength and maturity after such adversity make me hopeful that the Christian Patriarchy/Quiverfull movement will be a VERY short-term phenomenon. Above all, I’m glad to see you all finding peace in your “normal” (what I consider humanistic) lives. The world is actually a wonderful place that invites your discovery. Your children are fortunate to have you as their parents.

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