How firmly should a ten-year-old child hold her religious beliefs? How much exposure to alternative viewpoints should she have? These questions are at the heart of a recent controversy out of New Hampshire, where a family court has decreed that ten-year-old Amanda Kurowski-- who has been homeschooled by her mother since first grade-- should enroll in public school this month. Conservative Christian news organizations and blogs are vehemently protesting this decision, pointing to the court's own acknowledgment that Amanda is "generally likeable and well liked," "social and interactive with her peers," and "intellectually at or superior to grade level."
Let's be clear at the outset that this is a custody case, which is the only reason the state is involved. The parents, who share joint decision-making responsibility for Amanda, disagree about whether homeschooling is the best educational choice for her, and have asked the family court to decide. Under homeschooling regulations in New Hampshire (and everywhere else in the U.S.), the state would have no cause to step in if this weren't a custody issue.
But apart from those legal complications, the controversy nonetheless highlights some central concerns by outsiders about religiously-inspired homeschooling. "The counselor found Amanda to lack some youthful characteristics," wrote the court. "She appeared to reflect her mother's rigidity on questions of faith." While it's not clear what forms this rigidity took (other than Amanda's apparent attempt to proselytize the counselor), it's this observation that most infuriates critics of the court's decision. Should we really be so concerned about religious dogmatism in a ten-year-old? How many ten-year-olds hold a nuanced view of their religious commitments anyways? And what if her rigid beliefs were about environmentalism or politics—would outsiders still be so concerned?
In the view of the court, the exposure to "a variety of experiences, people, concepts, and surroundings" provided by public schools will better prepare Amanda "to grow to an adult who can make intelligent decisions about how to achieve a productive and satisfying life." In essence, the court was skeptical that Amanda had the emotional or intellectual room to think for herself. "It would be remarkable," wrote the court, "if a ten year old child who spends her school time with her mother and the vast majority of all her other time with her mother would seriously consider adopting any other religious point of view." Given that Amanda took three classes at the local public school last spring, it's not clear that opportunities for outside engagement were quite so minimal. But leaving that question aside, the broader philosophical question remains: To what extent do children need to "seriously consider" alternative beliefs in order to have their educational interests met? And a more practical question as well: is this type of existential reflection even encouraged at most public schools?
Parents have an obvious interest in passing on certain values and commitments to their children. To many conservative Christian homeschoolers, this is the heart of what they do. Where outsiders see rigidity of faith, these homeschool parents see essential understandings beginning to take root. As part of my research for Write These Laws on Your Children, I spent two years traveling the country and visiting with conservative Christian families, observing their homeschooling in action and talking with them about what they were doing and why. As one mother said to me, shaking her head in mock horror, "Heaven forbid, they turn out and believe just like you! To me, that's biblical parenting." She continued, paraphrasing Deuteronomy 6: "'Write these laws on your children, put them on your doorframes, carry them with you as you walk along the road.' I want my kids to think like me, not because I'm perfect, but because I love God and I want to follow Him. . . . and I want those beliefs to become theirs, obviously. The notion that they can learn and know God is of utmost importance in this house."
Ultimately, this case is an argument about the purposes of education, and the best means of achieving those purposes. Conservative Christian homeschoolers don't apologize for their intent to "write these laws on their children"—they believe this is their God-given right and responsibility. At the same time, I've yet to meet a homeschool parent who says she doesn't want her children to learn to think for themselves and make their beliefs their own. The parents I spent time with recognized—and were continually challenged by—the tension of encouraging such growth while also instilling an underlying foundation of Christian beliefs and commitments.
Outsiders often perceive conservative Christian homeschooling as a straightjacket of conformity, where kids have to toe an ideological line without the opportunity to consider other ways of being in the world. But I've also encountered many public school students who rarely, if ever, bring a critical eye to their own way of life, their understanding of the world. Perhaps for some kids, whether homeschoolers or conventional schoolers, the capacity to step back and critically examine the culture and belief system in which they were raised won't really develop until adulthood. The open question, of course, is what types of educational experiences beforehand will make that eventual self-awareness more or less likely.