Contrarian's Notebook

Disquieting Thoughts on Matters Cultural and Personal

Category: Parenting

We Have Created an Anxious Generation

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Photo via Miranda Fowler

Given that many college students learn nothing during their years in higher education, one might not immediately think of them as a bunch of perfectionists. But, according to some new research, they are. Coverage of the study in USA Today says:

 

(The study’s) lead author Thomas Curran of the University of Bath and co-author Andrew Hill of York St. John University describe perfectionism as “an irrational desire to achieve along with being overly critical of oneself and others.” In their study, published Dec. 28 in the journal Psychological Bulletincollege students from 1989 to 2016 took a test to measure self-oriented, other-oriented and socially prescribed perfectionism.

Modern-day students, the study found, display more characteristics of three types of perfectionism

I believe this.

Our culture has created a generation of young people who are characterized primarily by their outsized sense of what is expected of them and, paradoxically, a desire to avoid taking the kind of chances that lead to real achievement.

Talking about this story in today’s episode of his daily podcast, The Briefing, Albert Mohler picks up on the section of the USA Today story where the author suggests that social media is behind this phenomenon. Mohler says “no one goes on social media to post ‘I’m not doing anything special at the moment’” everyone appears to be doing something very special . The idea Mohler seems to be getting at is that young people look at social media and see the highlight reels of others lives and respond by feeling they must be perfect in order to live up to the idealized images presented there.

There is undoubtedly some measure of truth to that, however deeper factors are also at play. Social media is a vehicle, a conduit through which cultural values are imparted and cultural contexts affirmed.  To really understand the predicament of contemporary young people, we have to examine both those values and the context in which young people are trying to live them out.

Young people today have come of age in an era of brutal meritocracy. As the spiritual center of our society has ceased to hold, people have turned to emphasizing external achievements as a source of meaning. The not-so-subtle message is that the best life is the one whose end product is the overstuffed trophy case, resume or bank account.

At the same time, young people are told they have a moral obligation to seek as many affirmations of their personal value as possible through competition and activity. Winning a sports tournament no longer means simply that you are good at sports, but that you are a good person deserving of love and attention. The burden then is placed on every individual to prove his worth through winning. To refuse to play is to be deemed an immoral loser before the game has even begun.

We see this mindset everywhere. This is the mindset of the metric obsessed technician. It is the mindset of those who would reduce education to the standardized test. It is the mindset of the corporate culture of continuous improvement that has infected every area of our working lives.

When you combine this sort of ruthless reductionism with the “nobody’s-feelings-get-hurt-and-everybody-gets-a-trophy” attitude equally pervasive today, young people can’t help but be confused. Many have become paralyzed, unable to strike out on their own, to pursue personal goals without the permission of authorities. Instead, they become people racked by worries over being good enough, who simultaneously believe they need not expend much effort to be considered extraordinary.

The loss of the family, especially of the role of the father, is another factor in the development of these attitudes. Because the world has always been an arena of competition for resources, the family should be a refuge. In the family, we are, ideally, loved and rewarded merely for existing. Membership in the family should be achievement enough to grant us attachment, support and love.

The role of the father, when fathers existed, was, partly, to orient children, particularly boys, toward the outside world. Dad’s job was to pass on the necessary knowledge for competent living within a framework of familial love. At the same time, Dad set reasonable standards for behavior and rewarded appropriately. A good father was a man who had expectations, but expectations that were clear and could, with some effort, be satisfied. At the same time, a good father communicated that his love was not conditioned upon the perfect meeting of those expectations.

As the role of both faith and fathers faded in young people’s lives, people other than Dad, education bureaucrats, corporate executives, and politicians,  began setting the bar, and doing so in a manner that primarily served their interests. The result is young people on whom the expectations of school, corporate life and peers hang heavily. These young people, then, find themselves prey to the twin vices of anxiety and sloth, a situation that far too often gives rise to a kind of hopelessness in them with which we are all growing familiar. The irony here is that in its pursuit of ever better results, our secular, atomized culture has produced a generation increasingly frightened to produce anything.

None of this can be changed without a return to the healthier patterns of the past: a return to faith, a return to family, a return to a sense of sanity in what constitutes good enough. As with so many things in the modern world, the path forward here is, simultaneously, the path back.

The Benedict Option is Just What Fathers Do

Photo via Spirit-Fire

Each night when it is time for bed, I am the last to ascend the stairs. Before heading to the bedroom, the next to the last thing I do is check to make sure the doors are locked. The last thing I do is double-check that the door are locked. I do this because I am a father and making sure the border between the world and the home is secure is what fathers do.

The parallel between this nightly ritual and the larger idea Rod Dreher is calling the Benedict Option may not be obvious. When Rod talks about the Benedict Option he is talking about a strategic withdrawal from the surrounding culture by those who want to maintain more traditional home and family lives.

Such a retreat translates, in practical terms, to a shoring up of the boundaries between the home and the progressively coarsening cultural that surrounds it. Sounds like a job for fathers.

Unfortunately, many are not available. The number of fatherless families has grown consistently for nearly the last half decade. It’s no surprise to anyone that the increase in fatherlessness is highly correlated to the whole host of social ills that have also skyrocketed in the same period.

The point about the Benedict Option is this: homes without fathers are going to be more susceptible to the corrupting force of a disintegrating culture.  Homes and families that are most able to protect themselves from these influences will be those where the father is present, active and vigilant.

It’s easy to think that the chief cause of our cultural collapse has been increasing individualism, the triumph of the sexual revolution, or rampant consumerism, and all these play a part. But, the single most damaging development in our culture in practical, real-life terms has been the disappearance of  fathers and the growth of a general cultural outlook that sees us as, at best, irrelevant and, at worst, dangerous.

A culture in which fathers are both honored and held accountable to their duties is not a culture that requires a Benedict Option response. A culture in which fathers are dismissed and trivialized is a culture people want to escape. At this point, simply being a father who takes an active role in the home is a Benedict Option move.

Fathers are especially crucial to any real-life Benedict Option for a couple of reasons. First, someone has to protect and provide in order for the family to have a place to retreat. If somebody is going to homeschool, somebody has to earn a paycheck. Somebody has to check the locks at night. Somebody has to survey the landscape and look out for potential threats, and in liberal, post-Christian culture, there are many of them.

Can’t mothers do these things alone?

Yes and no. Certainly, mothers can lock doors and bring home paychecks. But, there’s more to fathering than that. In order to explore what more there is, we must invoke the now controversial idea that men and women are different.

This difference is the second reason fathers are so important when considering the Benedict Option. The father is important because he is a man and men have unique gifts to offer. Families without a man are going to have a more difficult time withdrawing from the culture without the gifts only a man can bring.

When there is no father in the home, however much a mother seeks to protect her children from the ravages of a punishing culture, she has already lost her ability to to protect them from the central scourge of that culture: fatherlessness. Just by being present, a man protects those he loves from harm.

Men also play a unique role in the family because they bring the necessary masculine qualities required to stand against the cultural onslaught. A mature father will establish standards. A mature father will inculcate timeless, and now countercultural, values in his children. He will enforce rules based on those values. Doing all this requires the kind of strength most characteristic of  the masculine psyche. Wives and mothers may be able to do all this to some degree, but few find it gratifying the way a good man will.

When a father teaches his son to stay away from porn, that’s the Benedict Option. When he sacrifices his material wants to allow his children a full-time parent at home, that’s the Benedict Option. When he looks at the outfit his daughter plans to wear on a date and says, even if Momma thought it was okay, “Oh, hell no!”, that’s the Benedict Option.

Here’s the important thing. Much has been said about the philosophical and sociological implications of the Benedict Option. People have argued about it and will continue to. A lot of this speculative reflection has great value. At some point, though, someone has to bring the discussion down to the question of he we ought to live, of what the Benedict Option looks like in day to day life. When we do that, don’t be surprised to find that more often than not, the Benedict Option is just what fathers do.

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Happiness is Not Your Natural State

Photo via Moyan Brenn

I came down the stairs at home not long ago to hear our youngest daughter whining. This is not, to say the least, an unusual experience. Since the day she was born, our youngest has been more inclined to whine and cry than her older sister ever was. On this particular day, her complaint was that the only thing that wasn’t boring for her was to play My Little Pony and her older sister “never, ever, ever wants to play My Little Pony.”

My wife was doing her best to respond with a mix of comfort and firmness. We don’t like to see our children cry and we don’t want them to grow up to be bored, whiny people who fall apart when others won’t comply. The kerfuffle was settled by the simple suggestion that she play My Little Pony alone, which after expressing all her residual melancholy, our girl accepted.

Experiences like these are familiar to anyone who’s raised a child. They are everyday stuff. Given how frequently parents must calm, discipline and instruct a child about how to be happy, it is amazing that the general culture believes happiness and contentment are natural states of existence for human beings.

They are not.

Let me say this again bluntly:

Happiness and Contentment are NOT the default states for human beings.

The default states for human beings are self-centered anger, sadness, and anxiety.

Think again about raising children. No one instructs a child about how to get mad about not getting her way. No one trains a child to form habits that will lead to a life of anxious pouting. No, the job of parents is to train a child to adopt the behaviors and perspectives that are most likely to lead to inner and outer peace. If peaceful, contented happiness came naturally to us, this wouldn’t be unnecessary.

Once again, our culture obscures what ought to be obvious. Most people in the modern West operate on the assumption that the human being in his natural state is a beam of radiant joy, greeting each new day with eager excitement.

Media reinforce this. Everybody on those floor polish commercials smiles so broadly when they’re smearing that stuff around on the linoleum. The people on all those HGTV shows never suffer seriously. They all smile, even when the house is falling down around them. Everything, the media tell us constantly, should be fine so long as there is plenty of money to buy, buy, buy.

We’re led to believe that happiness should be our normal state by an even deeper force. The whole of the modern outlook rests on the notion of human beings’ inherent goodness. The assumption that human beings, freed from the corrupting influence of social expectations, are naturally peaceful and happy permeates all our social institutions, including the education establishment.

As is the case with most modern ideas, the real-world result of this one is increased misery. People who find themselves depressed, anxious, and angry adults wonder what’s wrong with them. Having imbibed the belief that their normal state should be calm joy, when emotional realities arise that don’t fit that belief, people see themselves as broken, abnormal, and feel even worse.

The assumption that happiness is the natural state is clear in the way we talk about depression. People speak as if depression is a variation from the norm, something novel a few must endure. The truth is that something like depression is the natural state of human beings when we fail to make serious efforts to control our emotional state, when we haven’t been trained to be happy.

Depression is automatic. Happiness is an achievement. Being happy requires making serious efforts to control our thoughts and actions. To be happy, we must submit ourselves to discipline. We must be trained in how to think and behave. We must be reigned-in from the excesses of emotion and narcissism and oriented outward toward our goals and the well-being of others.

The product of this training is a set of habits we call character. The cultivation of character offers us an escape from our natural misery. As we pursue greater character, we are lifted above the petty squalls of passing emotion and placed upon more solid ground where we can be, if not always happy, stable enough to attend to our duties which, in the end, always satisfies.

If you need some help developing your character, this book can help.

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Five Things Men Should Do If Their Fathers Sucked

Nobody gets to have a perfect dad. The best are flawed even though they try. Some are just rotten. Fortunately, my dad was one of the better ones. He was always a kind and faithful presence in my brother’s and my lives growing up. Whatever happened, we knew we could count on him to be there when we needed him.

Not everyone can say the same. From time to time, I hear from men whose fathers have let them down. Some of their fathers were cold or absent. Some have stories of terrible abuse. These are complex problems with no simple solutions, but there are still things we can do to make things better.

Here are five of them:

1. Find a mentor.

You can only have one father, and you don’t get to pick him. You do, however, get to pick others who can help you grow. Find others you admire and build relationships with them. Ask them to help you become like them. These relationships will increase your knowledge, wisdom and skills. As you acquire these, you’re confidence will grow.

These mentors don’t all have to be people you know. Many men writing online can help. Simply reading and pondering their material will help you grow in those areas where a troubled relationship with your father left you lacking. James Altucher has been one of these online mentors for me and many others. Maybe he can help you too. Also, don’t forget to check Art of Manliness daily.

Don’t be lazy about this. If you were abused by your father, you were a victim. Don’t victimize yourself further by neglecting to be intentional about finding relationships you need now.

2. Dedicate yourself to a mission

Abusive men abuse, in part, because their lives are not devoted to a worthy and uplifting calling. Without such a purpose to draw them out of themselves, they become ingrown, self-involved, unable to rise above their own pain. Without a mission to give them a framework for transforming their pain into positive energy, all they can do is pass that pain in to others.

You don’t have to. By dedicating yourself to a worthy goal, your life has a direction and you have motivation to throw off everything that hinders you from achieving it, including the residual damage you sustained from your father’s problems.

If you don’t know what you want to do with your life, what your mission should be, pick anything. Don’t try to decided what to spend your life doing. Decide what sounds good to attempt in the next six months. Work on meeting women. Learn a martial art. Practice a musical instrument. Garden. All these things are short-term missions. As you pursue them, the long-term focus of your life will become clearer.

3. Work on forgiveness

This can be tough to hear, especially if your father was cruel or exceptionally abusive. Nevertheless, forgiveness is a process of freeing yourself from the lasting effects of the damage your father did. Forgiveness alone allows men to step out of the chains their fathers imperfections put on them and to pursue their missions unencumbered.

As tough as it is to hear that forgiveness is necessary, it can be even tougher to do. Fortunately, there are resources. These books might be a good place to start. However you start the process, the important thing is to get going.

4. Commit to being a better man than your father was

Even the worst fathers can bequeath the gift of a bad example. If your father was rotten, at least he showed you what not to be. If you had a father who was cruel, selfish, or wholly irresponsible, when faced with a decision, ask yourself what your dad would do in this situation. Then, do the opposite.

Of course, you don’t want to spend your life trying to prove that you are better than he was, as though what matters is winning the morality Olympics. At the same time, don’t neglect the bad example he put before you so that you will know what habits to cultivate and which to avoid. Do what he would not. Was he an alcoholic? Don’t drink. Was he violent? Find some positive way to handle your anger. Was he emotionally out-of-control, unable to resolve issues from his own past? Get therapy.

Whatever you do, map out your own path and make sure it leads you in a direction different from the one your father chose.

5. Try to remain open to the consolations of faith

No one is saying you have to run out and become some hard-core fundamentalist. Rather, a willingness to, at least, remain open to spiritual input will help with the five other steps. Christian scripture has much to say about fathers and fathering, including the promise that God will be a father to the fatherless (Psalm 68:5) and that the Lord takes up even those forsaken by their parents (Psalm 27:10).

Being willing to connect with these truths can help. The solace of knowing you are not, ultimately, rejected by the Father who matters is a powerful means of coming to peace with the limitations of our biological dads. Be willing to ponder this.

In the end, know that these things aren’t magic. Certainly, they aren’t going to fix everything quickly. But, walking the path these principles map out will help you fix what can be fixed. And, in the long-run, they’ll help you live peacefully with everything that can’t.

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The Home and Work at War: Some Musings

My brother and I didn’t know how good we had it.

Our mother stayed home with us for a large part of the time we were growing up. For a while, she worked a job where she’d get home around four, half an hour or so after my brother and I got home from school. We were on our own barely long enough to qualify as part-time latchkey kids .

We were far from wealthy. But, we were heirs to benefits that would take years to appreciate. Fewer kids now are in the same position. The reasons for this are many. In the intervening years, economic changes have taken place for sure, but the deepest changes have been social.

A recent New York Times story makes this clear. The article summarizes a Pew Research Center survey:

Children are much more likely than not to grow up in a household in which their parents work, and in nearly half of all two-parent families today, both parents work full time, a sharp increase from previous decades.”

More parents are working full-time ostensibly to make ends meet. The article contains a snapshot of one of these families.

“Aimee Barnes, 33, and Jakub Zielkiewicz, 31, both work full time at the California Environmental Protection Agency and are the parents of Roman, 15 months. They said they knew they were lucky to have help, like flexible schedules and extended family nearby. Still, figuring out how to manage work and parenting has been hard.

“You basically just always feel like you’re doing a horrible job at everything,” Ms. Barnes said. “You’re not spending as much time with your baby as you want, you’re not doing the job you want to be doing at work, you’re not seeing your friends hardly ever.”

For all its detailed reporting, The Times fails to get at the heart of the changes.

Economics

Some of the differences are economic. My dad worked at a factory like lots of the dads in our town did. When he was laid off, he began his own small business that he ran as a second job once he was called back to the line. I grew up at the beginning of the end for American manufacturing, and even though everyone had a sense that things were going downhill, a solid job at the plant was enough to keep a family afloat even without a spouse who worked full time. Because there existed in those days, a vital blue-collar path to economic stability, people could establish homes without advanced training. People I knew back then had jobs, not careers.

Things today are different. Look at the employers of the people the Times chose to represent the contemporary family: two work for government, one is a “biotech consultant”, the other works at Twitter. Most people would consider these stable, elite jobs with, one imagines, commensurate salaries. Still, achieving economic stability seems to elude them in a way it did not elude people a few decades ago.

If people in these prestige positions are struggling to make a home, one can only imagine how much more the big-box-retail employee is suffering.

Shifts in Social Attitudes

The NYT story also touches on cultural and political changes that have made the situation worse. As American manufacturing disappeared, the insistence that everyone go to college became ever more strident. Pushing a large percentage of American young people through higher education predisposes them to a certain set of assumptions about the role of work in their lives.

After years of schooling at, no doubt, expensive, elite universities, the men and women in this story are conditioned to see their devoting the strongest years of their lives to laboring for government and corporations as their unquestionable destiny. Work, especially work in “cool” and “important” jobs justifies their existence.

The home is not the center of their identity, but peripheral to it. They wonder how to care for the kids so they can work. They don’t wonder what work must be done in order to care for the kids. Children, for these people, are a hindrance to work, not the reason for it.

At no point in the story does anyone seriously entertain the question of whether it is necessary for both spouses to work, of whether there is a possibility of scaling back. Instead, everyone considers having a career his birthright. The possibility of chucking it all to move somewhere cheaper than Brooklyn or Central California never comes up. These people would likely regard the suggestion they give up an elite career in the same way they would regard the suggestion that their problems could be solved by suicide. The former is as unimaginable as the latter.

Instead of focusing on renunciation of luxury and status as a means of managing the problem, the Times intimates solutions more acceptable to the upper-middle class leftist: egalitarianism and paid parental-leave.

From the story:

There is a gender divide in parents’ perceptions of how much responsibility they take on, Pew found. Fifty-six percent of fathers say they share equally, while only 46 percent of mothers agree.

“As they’re being squeezed harder at work, the pressures for egalitarian parenting are increasing at home,” Ms. Blair-Loy said. “They’re doing more than their fathers ever did and they have a belief in egalitarianism, so of course they want to interpret it as equal.”

Asked about the division of household chores, Sean O’Malley, 37, a biotech consultant and father of Fiona, 11 months, said: “I think we’re dividing pretty equally. And if it’s not equal, then we certainly want it to be.”

“I’d say I do more,” said his wife, Anne Mercogliano, 33, a marketing executive at Twitter.”

Notice how this guy, working full-time and doing his best to help at home, is set up as a buffoon who is incapable, because of his self-delusion, to see how much more work he ought to be taking on. He’d be better off if he’d just said, “I don’t care who does more.” Then, he would only have been made to look callous, rather than both callous and deluded.

Had he said that, he would have been guilty of a sin against the system by suggesting there exists a domain legitimately outside the influence of the corporate-state axis. See, the concern for egalitarianism is really about finding a means of managing the home to allow both parties to maximize the portion of their lives they sacrifice to the public sphere.

Should the wife stay home and do more than her “fair share” of the housework, we are led to believe, she would be cut off from the world of public labor and therefore from the font of human meaning. Only a really mean guy would do that to his wife, and thus, we get a fetishization of “egalitarian parenting” which, as we can see, is an ideal even men who are sincerely trying their to uphold are doomed to fail to achieve.

The author of the article brings up paid family leave as a possible means of relieving family stress. While there are many ways public policy might be shaped to better support families, forcing corporations and taxpayers to foot the bill for paid time off is more likely to only strain families even further as the costs for that policy get passed onto them in the form of higher prices and taxation.

Paid family leave is only the current iteration of the ultimate goal of subsuming the family into the corporate state. The preferred solution to the problem is that parents would surrender the raising of children totally to the corporate state under the guise of expanded “educational” enterprises.

A Better Way

A better solution would be to turn back toward a culture in which home and family are central to our understanding of human life, a culture where those to whom we are closest have more say in shaping our identities than the corporations and government for whom we labor.

This is the real difference between the families profiled in this piece and the family I grew up in. Thirty years ago, the colonization of domestic life by corporations and government was incomplete. There was still space to be a family.

Expectations then were, in one sense, lower. Not everyone needed or wanted a career. There were other sources of meaning, sources of meaning that remain available to us if we really want them. Accessing them is less difficult than it seems, but to find them the first thing we’ll have to do is take some time off from work and stay home.

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Character is the Foundation of Relationships

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When a house is sinking into the ground, a wise man doesn’t try to solve the problem by rearranging his furniture. No cosmetic change is going to solve the problem. Add a new coat of paint, some new fixtures in the bathroom, hang a lot of beautiful pictures, and the house will still fall down.

The only way to solve the problem is to attend to the foundation. When the foundation needs to be shored up, nothing else matters. The same is true for relationships. When they fall apart, it’s never because of surface factors. It’s not because you weren’t funny enough or didn’t dress well. Things wouldn’t have been fundamentally different if you’d made better eye contact or avoided making that one dumb comment. All these things are the equivalent of hanging pictures on the wall of a crumbling house.

To keep your relationships from crumbling you must attend to their foundation. The foundation of every sustainable interpersonal relationship is personal character. Relationships flourish or whither depending upon the character of the people within them. The stronger the foundation of character upon which the relationship is built, the more likely the relationship will last.

Cultivating the components of personal character: honesty, openness, compassion, moderation, and a rejection of the victim-mindset, makes it possible to develop trust. If you find yourself in a failing relationship, it’s best, as in all things, to go straight to the root by looking at the core character of the people involved.

Not all relationships that end are failures. Friends drift apart. Interests change. Time demands increase. Sometimes things just run their course. Mature people who’ve been dating sometimes realize they’re headed in different directions and dissolve the relationship amicably. None of these are truly failed relationships. None of these is a sign of a lack of character.

Failed relationships are those that decay against the wishes of the people involved. Situations where people get into repetitive patterns of abuse and anger and can’t get out, those are failed relationships. Families that fall apart and inflict damage on their children, these almost always owe their demise to insufficiently developed character on the part of at least one member.

The typical pattern in these situations, of course, is to focus on the faults of others. We insist they change, look for leverage to use to force them into being what we want. We manipulate. What we never seem to get is that these tactics, though they come naturally to us, don’t work. Flourishing relationships require doing the counter-intuitive.

What is counter-intuitive is examining ourselves. It goes against our nature to think that maybe what is at the root of our relationship failures is us. But, this is what is necessary for establishing relationships that last. At some point, we must surrender all our protests, drop all the smoke screens and look honestly at our shortcomings. This is the beginning of lasting connections.

One person’s willingness to examine his character is no guarantee that a relationship will last. It takes two. The sad rule of life is that while creating sustainable relationships requires mature character on the part of two people, one person can ruin a relationship all by himself. Sometimes working on your character means learning to stand up for yourself, to do what it takes to escape abuse, to hold others accountable. Working on your character makes it increasingly clear whom to let go of and how.

If you are in one of these failing relationships, investing time in your own character: owning up to your part in the destruction, being honest, temperate and modest is your best strategy. Improving you character won’t necessarily save your relationship. However, whether the relationship ends or continues, you’ll be stronger, better suited for the future. With a focus on improving your character, when you move on, you can be confident it will be it will be into a house whose foundation, this time, is secure.

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Poorly Socialized Homeschooled Girl Doesn’t Fit In at College

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The most common charge made against homeschoolers is, of course, that they are socially backward. They aren’t prepared to cope with the real world. They’ll never be able to make friends. By now, these accusations are so common even mentioning them feels like spouting clichés.

That these charges are common and easily refuted by both anecdotal experience and more systematic research doesn’t keep some people from building their lives around them. Take, for example, an pseudonymous blogger whose story was recently published at Homeschoolers Anonymous.

Homeschoolers Anonymous is a mixed bag. At times, they offer a corrective to the cult-like currents in the homeschooling movement. Many of the narratives they publicize are from childen whose families that were part of the Gothard-cult or similar weird groups.

The people behind Homeschoolers Anonymous, however, have the same problem all moral crusaders have. They paint with too broad a brush. Writers there talk in broad terms about the homeschool movement, obscuring important lines and distinctions in approaches and styles. For example, they routinely identify people they claim are “very influential” and “admired” in the homeschooling movement, but whom I, and most homeschooling families I know, have never heard of. The editors of Homeschoolers Anonymous have a perspective problem.

That perspective problem includes a tendency to accept without question the assertions that homeschoolers are bound to be socially inept. The testimonies of formerly homeschooled students are designed to reinforce these specious claims. The recently posted story by “Casey” makes the point.

“Casey’s” story opens by displaying the exaggerated sensitivities that characterize her attitude throughout the piece. She begins by complaining that her mother, when dropping her off at college, told her she didn’t have to go and that she was welcome to return home any time. This comment “stung” Casey’s pride. Casey then reports she “no privacy or separation between” herself and her mother.

All this closeness, she says, hurt her, because while she excelled in college academically. She was afraid to make friends. The key to getting over this was her being invited to drink with some other girls in the dorm one night.

She writes:

The extent of my book smarts became as apparent as my lack of street smarts. I can still remember my first experience with alcohol (as can my social club sisters, as they like to remind me every chance they get): When asked to “pregame” with them one Friday night, I brought over a curling iron and makeup, thinking that term was synonymous with primping before going out (or as I so eloquently put it, “doing each other’s hair and stuff”). They laughed (with me, not at me, which was nice), shook their heads and handed me my first drink.

“Casey’s” journey continues throughout college.

She goes on:

With each new year of school I made leaps and bounds in my personal growth, learning so much about myself in such a short span of time that from sophomore to junior to senior year, it was like becoming a whole new person four times. Developing “street smarts,” and with them my own personal tastes and interests. Becoming more cultured through experience and associations. Swearing when angry, and not feeling bad about it. I like to think of it as making up for lost time.

My purpose in quoting these two passages is to point out what “Casey” sees as the marks of a mature, well-socialized young adult: recreational drinking and swearing without feeling bad about it. My point in this post isn’t to urge readers to be teetotalers or to inveigh against naughty words.

My point is that people who charge that homeschoolers are going to be socially incapable of connecting with their college peers make the same mistake “Casey” has made, namely, assuming that college students are mature and well-socialized. The underlying assumption in the argument that homeschoolers will be at a disadvantage because they won’t be like their classmates when they go to college is that their classmates will be people worth being like. That assumption, as anyone who has spent five minutes on a college campus in the last thirty years should know, is mostly wrong.

In order to determine whether homeschoolers are poorly socialized, we have to have a standard by which to determine what being well-socialized looks like. Almost no one who makes this criticism of homeschoolers ever points to an example of what they consider a well-socialized person. The reason is that what they mean by “well-socialized” is really “just being like everyone else.” Being like everyone else is a chief value of the public education system, and a willingness to accept that value is seen as the biggest indicator of being “well-socialized.”

In “Casey’s” story, what we see is not so much a young person whose social development was stunted and who was therefore unable to connect with her peers. Instead, it is the story of a homeschooled student who felt uncomfortable being more serious and self-disciplined than her peers. Then, probably because she felt lonely and unaccepted, she capitulated to her peers’ lower standards of behavior. Living down to the expectations of peers because you’re lonely is not a sign of maturity, of growth, of progress. It is a sign of slipping backward.

Stories like “Casey’s” do nothing to show that homeschooled students are poorly socialized. Instead, they show that some homeschooled students and their parents can be, like anyone else, naïve. They trust that “what most people do” is a good standard by which to judge one’s “socialization.” They trust that what is normal for college students is good for college students. They trust that when there is a discrepancy between what is normal for most people and the way they behave the fault is theirs.

The truth is that if homeschooled students have trouble making social connections at college, it is because the average college student is painfully immature, confused and self-indulgent. Homeschooled students may sometimes be the same. But when there is a disconnect, we ought not assume that the problem is on the homeschooler’s end as some of the editors at Homeschoolers Anonymous seem to do. It could be otherwise. It could be that instead of homeschoolers being undersocialized, their non-homeschooled peers are socialized by institutions that never ask children to grow up. Homeschoolers are right to feel weird about this. And as for making friends, who wants to hang out with those people anyway?


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It Is Not Possible to Shelter Children Too Much

Maple leaves in Autumn.

Once in a while, I say something that ruffles a few feathers, disturbs tender souls and cuts against the grain of common assumptions. I did all this the other day with a single tweet. I wrote:

The incensed comments began flowing in. It is possible to shelter children too much, they insisted. I was regaled with tales of children who are not allowed to play outdoors, of adults who don’t know where babies come from. All this was presented as evidence of the negative effects of sheltering children more than is appropriate. I remain unconvinced.

Those who took issue with my assertion, I submit, are confused about the nature of the sheltering function of the home. They are especially confused about the role of sheltering children in light of the family’s larger mission.

This confusion stems, as confusions so often do, from mixed up metaphors. Let’s consider a couple. A tree shelters, and so does a prison cell. Both offer protection from the intense rays of a hot sun and from a soaking rain. You can nap and eat your meals within the protection of each. Yet, no one confuses a pleasant picnic in the shade with a prison term. Everyone knows one is good, the other to be avoided.

The difference between the shelter of a tree and the shelter of a prison cell lies in their purposes. The shelter a functional family offers to its children is more like that of the tree than of the prison cell. The purpose of a picnic in the shade, or ducking under the branches to escape the worst of the summer rain is for pleasure and safety, the kind of pleasure and safety that foster trust, growth and love.

The cell, on the other hand is for punishment and confinement. It too shelters you from the heat of the day, but only by blotting out the sun. No one spends his whole life in the shade of a single tree. Cells can hold you until death. The difference between the two is not one of degree, but of kind and purpose. No one who has found shelter from a storm beneath the big branches of an ancient oak thinks the tree shelters him “too much.” While criminals may think prison cells deny them too much freedom, victims and juries don’t.

The purpose of sheltering in a family is similar to the purpose of sheltering under a tree: to experience the comfort, safety and joy that makes possible the full flowering of a human personality. It is not possible to have too much of this sheltering.

Because the goal of a healthy family is the flourishing of its members, the family must not adopt the methods or attitude of the prison cell. Some, unfortunately, do. Someone sent me a link to this article to prove the point. In the article, “Ralph” tells the “truth about sheltering your kids”. Except, of course, he doesn’t. Not the whole truth anyway.

“Ralph” grew up in a family that was part of the Gothard cult. His family was confused about whether it was supposed to be a tree or a cell. It erred on the side of the cell. “Ralph’s” story is spectacular, but not the norm. “Ralph’s” situation is the exception, not the rule, and generalizing from exceptions is a certain road to wrong conclusions.

So, in spite of “Ralph” or even in spite of a thousand “Ralphs”, I maintain that it is impossible to shelter a child too much. The sheltering of a child is the foundation from which he or she grows into a mature adult. When a family is functioning as it should and is in line with its purpose, the sheltering of a child is one of the few good things there simply cannot be too much of.


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