The Austin bomber is an opportunity to discuss the impossibility of parents controlling how their children turn out, and the pathologies that result when they try.
As soon as reports came out that the 23-year-old man mailing bombs into Austin had been homeschooled, the predictable vitriol began.
(Link to website for twitter posts)
That Muslim family comparison is an interesting applied to reporting from New York Magazine and the Austin-American Statesman, which saw fit to cite portions of the Austin bomber’s college writing in which he says natural marriage makes sense because neither two men nor two women can actually have sex. Do we ever see mainstream media quoting the portions of the Quran that command violence and subjugation against unbelievers? To ask that question is to answer it. So why, then, is this disparate public treatment of Christian and Muslim murderers justified, especially for a media that inexplicably continues to pretend at “objectivity”?
Acquaintances tell media the young man’s family was “strictly religious” and regularly attended church, Bible studies, and what sound like fun-filled activities with many other homeschooling families. His relatives in a statement said they are “devastated and broken” and praying for the families of the young man’s victims as well as his soul. One can’t really ask for a more humane response to hearing such terrible news about a family member.
Of course, it’s no surprise to see the Left using a horrible crime to tar homeschooling even though the Left howls when people apply the same kind of analysis to bomb-generating Muslims or environmentalists. We’re all used to this kind of embedded, unfair, and utterly unapologetic cognitive dissonance by now.
So let’s talk about something not as well-worn: The impossibility of parents controlling how their children turn out, and the pathologies inside and outside homeschooling that result when they try.
The Pitfalls of ‘Loving’ Your Kids to Validate Yourself
It may seem obvious: Parents can’t control their kids. We’ve all known great parents who had a kid go off the rails due to the child’s own bad choices and despite his parents’ attempts to steer him aright. Yet even though we know this is true we act in ways that pretend it is not.
This can be especially true for homeschool parents, who make unusual sacrifices to give their kids a better life. Tim Wise’s tweets above mock this good desire. But there’s something inside that mockery. Although badly and cruelly, it points to the truth that kids can and sometimes do reject even the most loving parenting and home environments. It also points to the truth that parents’ insecurities can deform their kids in the name of sacrificial love.
In his “Four Loves,” philosopher C.S. Lewis discusses this form of bourgeoisie virtue-signaling: “the ravenous need to be needed will gratify itself either by keeping its objects needy or by inventing for them imaginary needs. It will do this all the more ruthlessly because it thinks (in one sense truly) that it is a Gift-love and therefore regards itself as ‘unselfish’.” He illustrated with an example of a mother we all have encountered at some point:
Mrs. Fidget very often said that she lived for her family. And it was not untrue. Everyone in the neighbourhood knew it. ‘She lives for her family,’ they said; ‘what a wife and mother!’ She did all the washing; true, she did it badly, and they could have afforded to send it out to laundry, and they frequently begged her not to do it. But she did… She was living for her family. She always sat up to ‘welcome’ you if you were out late at night; two or three in the morning, it made no odds; you would always find the frail, pale, weary face awaiting you, like a silent accusation. Which means of course that you couldn’t with any decency go out very often.
I recently taught at a homeschool co-operative, in which several families meet, usually once a week, for classes that various parents teach. While we were preparing lessons, a homeschooling mom dropped this comment: “I would feel so guilty if I didn’t homeschool my kids.” I asked why, and she replied that essentially she would feel she was deficient as a mother if she did not educate them personally, in kind of a parallel to moms who feel deficient because they’re not the Pinterest type who makes all her kids’ clothes and toys from scratch and grinds grain she grew herself to make homemade, organic, high-protein amaranth bread.
I have different mom hangups than this, so this struck me as a crushing spiritual and psychological burden for a mother to assume. But we do this thing all the time, especially highly conscientious moms, who in my experience are highly concentrated among the homeschool set. Yet this control dynamic exists among plenty of parents, and not only homeschoolers, either.
Some call it helicopter parenting. Others call it tiger mothering. Whatever it is, it’s fueled by anxiety, guilt, and above all the nagging feeling that if your child turns into a bomb-mailer, it will be because you potty trained him using disposables instead of cloth trainers, or at age three instead of infancy. One consequence of this is that when your kid fails at something — as he regularly will — you only have yourself to blame, since you did everything in that child’s life for him. As they do, this phobia produces the very reality it exists to shield against.
Thinking You’re Helping Doesn’t Make It True
As psychology professor Jordan Peterson points out below in a characteristically powerful description of a facet of his field, this relationship pattern undermines the child’s coming of age in ways that are endemic now in our culture. At its deepest level, he says, some mothers do this because their child’s growth threatens their identity as a mother. Elsewhere he’s said he thinks this is the most likely pitfall of homeschooling.
A mother’s true job is to work herself out of motherhood by gradually allowing, even pushing, her children to stand on their own two feet, walk, then run — sometimes away from her. This is a particularly female tendency that could often be remedied by allowing fathers more parenting influence, as they are more likely to push for kids’ independence. Overly anxious mothers tend to smother their kids in the name of “helping” them, which ultimately sets their kids up for stunted development and pathological behavior.
Cindy Rollins, a homeschool mother who has graduated eight kids, recently told how one of her sons who worked in college admissions observed he could always tell the homeschooling families on a visit, because the mothers asked all the questions while their nearly adult children, the college applicants, sat in silence.
A couple of years ago, a series of scandals among homeschool leaders coincided with the adulthood of the generation of kids whose families had begun homeschooling with its 1980s resurgence. These kids and their parents began openly discussing their disillusionment with the idea that homeschooling could ensure a happy and good life. The well-known homeschool leader and pastor Josh Harris, son of a homeschooling dynasty, posted the following on his blog from the also well-known Reb Bradley in 2011:
In the last couple of years, I have heard from multitudes of troubled homeschool parents around the country, a good many of whom were leaders. These parents have graduated their first batch of kids, only to discover that their children didn’t turn out the way they thought they would. Many of these children were model homeschoolers while growing up, but sometime after their 18th birthday they began to reveal that they didn’t hold to their parents’ values.
Some of these young people grew up and left home in defiance of their parents. Others got married against their parents’ wishes, and still others got involved with drugs, alcohol, and immorality. I have even heard of several exemplary young men who no longer even believe in God. My own adult children have gone through struggles I never guessed they would face.
Most of these parents remain stunned by their children’s choices, because they were fully confident their approach to parenting was going to prevent any such rebellion.
Most of these folks were Christians, so it’s terribly sad their pastors and the largely Christian leaders of the homeschool movement did not preach the gospel to them better. This would have reminded them that salvation “is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast,” so our identity and self-worth ultimately need to come from something deeper than our ticked-off to-do lists and sparkling, Instagrammable appearances.
We need to keep from the twin overreactions of attempting to control all things our kids do or abdicating our responsibility to them and our community by letting them run wild. We cannot make our kids be good, but good parenting — which includes letting them fail and make their own choices at the appropriate times — can overall increase their odds. We need to parent according to timeless principles about morality and human nature that can be applied flexibly to specific circumstances, not stuff our kids into systems that we naively and desperately trust to ensure perfect outcomes.
Fittingly enough, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn poignantly gets at this great truth that all parents, and all people, need to hear and frequently ponder:
Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains … an unuprooted small corner of evil.
Since then I have come to understand the truth of all the religions of the world: They struggle with the evil inside a human being (inside every human being). It is impossible to expel evil from the world in its entirety, but it is possible to constrict it within each person.
It is certainly much easier to lie to ourselves that we can control life’s outcomes, that homeschooling our kids — or getting them into the best preschool at age three, or the top college, or making them concert pianists or star athletes or whatever other sign of achievement we settle on — will ensure their entrance into heaven or at the very least validate us as amazing parents. But that lie has one hell of a payback.
Joy Pullmann is executive editor of The Federalist and author of "The Education Invasion: How Common Core Fights Parents for Control of American Kids," out from Encounter Books in 2017. Get it on Amazon.