When I heard about the premise behind TLC’s 17 Kids and Counting, my first thought was: “That is not going to end well.”
The show, which later became 19 Kids and Counting and ran from 2008–2015, centered on Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar’s family. More than a dozen years — and scandals — later, I am saddened but unsurprised I was right. I was able to make my prediction because I come from the same world the Duggars do, a world as alien to most Americans as Mars: fundamentalist Christian homeschooling.
For many of the people who watched the show and enjoyed the Duggar’s supposedly wholesome, winsome lifestyle, the recent conviction and sentencing of the eldest child, Josh Duggar, to 12 years in prison on multiple counts of possesion of child pornography may be shocking. How could a family with such strong “Christian values,” who kept their children far away from the evils of “The World,” have created this?
At this point, most of us interested in the travails of the Duggar family are familiar with the basic facts and some of the more obvious problems: Josh sexually abused his sisters and others in their church, purity culture laid the blame on the victims, Josh was protected by his community, rinse and repeat as Josh became more and more powerful until eventually he was watching child pornography, including one showing the rape of an 18-month-old girl, according to investigators.
The horrifying reality is that the Duggars’ entire world is set up to create men like Josh. In fact, Josh’s mother, Michelle, sent a letter to the judge pleading for leniency in his sentencing. According to People magazine, Michelle lauds Josh as having a “tender heart” and being “compassionate toward others.” She writes about his “upbeat” personality and “wise” financial decisions. Possessing a video of a toddler being raped doesn’t detract from his “character” in the slightest, because he’s a model example of their Christian belief system. Her letter is a near-reproduction of a guide for raising “moral” children from the Institute in Basic Life Principles, a ministry that provides educational materials common among fundamentalist homeschoolers.
Josh Duggar is not an anomaly of fundamentalist Christian homeschooling; he’s a fully foreseeable and predictable result.
An abusive view of children
An underpinning of Christian fundamentalist culture is quiverful ideology, and it has a deceptively simple definition: a Christian belief that married couples must have as many children as physically possible. Quiverful ideology gets its name from Psalms 127:4-5, which says children are like “arrows in the hand of a warrior … Happy is the man who has his quiver full of them.”
Children, to those like the Duggars and the people at my old church, are tools and weapons. We are made not because our parents are interested in us as individuals; instead, we are merely intended to become ideological copies of our parents. By this metric, Josh Duggar, who was a lobbyist for the conservative Family Research Council, was considered a “success” by his parents, while other Duggar offspring who are not hueing as close to the ideological line — like Jinger, who dares to wear pants , or Jill, who said she became the target of verbal abuse once she began making her own decisions — are the failures.
The soul-deep conviction that children are weapons leads to all sorts of horrific abuses. Children raised in this world are inculcated with the knowledge that they do not have any authority over what happens to themselves or their bodies, and that the best way to survive the pain inflicted on them by people they trust is to accept the pain as deserved, delivered in love.
If that sounds extreme, consider that the Duggars adhered to the teachings of Bill Gothard (another accused sexual abuser) and of Michael and Debi Pearl, whose work has been implicated in several child fatalities. These homeschooling leaders teach parents to revere ritualized beatings. In their methods, children are forced to “accept” being beaten, staying still, quiet, and compliant to convince a parent they are suitably repentant. After the beating, parents are taught to comfort their children — a form of trauma bonding. Children are required to force their body into a “freeze” response and then cooperate with the abuse in order for it to end .
When this is how a child’s been taught to deal with their parents hurting them, how do you think a kindergartner would respond to their teenage brother sneaking into her room at night to sexually assault her? Might she grow up to go on TV and praise him, claiming all is forgiven and that he is a righteous man? And if you’ve been taught not to view children as people, but objects, could you grow up into a person willing to buy material of them being abused?
Another core facet to fundamentalist homeschool culture — which is, regardless of homeschooling’s slowly growing diversity, still the dominant force in the homeschool world — is the “Stay At Home Daughter” movement, kicked off by Doug Phillips — another accused sexual abuser — and Voddie Baucham. The two men were hugely influential in shaping the modern homeschooling movement, they teach “biblical patriarchy” as the only godly model for Christian families, of which being a stay-at-home daughter is a cornerstone principle.
In this dogma, girls, who become women, are permanently stripped of agency and identity. We “belong” to our fathers — described in incestuous language by men like Baucham — and then our husbands. All men, including brothers, have more authority over our lives than we do.
Protecting homeschool children
I know from experience how difficult it is to escape this subculture, and I’ve spent my entire adult life learning what I should have been taught as a child: I do not exist purely as an ideological weapon, and I am meant for more than suffering. I’ve learned these lessons alongside many others in the homeschool alumni community, and over the years we have collaborated with scholars, doctors, social workers, lawyers, educators, and legislators on crafting approaches that would help prevent the rampant child abuse and sexual violence that exists in many homeschooling communities.
The most critical change needed is a tectonic cultural shift to one that centers the needs of homeschooled children. I work as a volunteer for the Coalition for Responsible Home Education, which assembled the “Bill of Rights for Homeschooled Children.” The document outlines what that cultural shift could look like. The rights to medical care, literacy, friendship, safety — none of those are guaranteed for the vast majority of homeschooled children. In many slices of homeschooling culture — religiously motivated or not — parents roundly mock concepts like socialization and completing the school year. The right to something as simple and profoundly necessary as peer relationships was recently a viral point of debate even in the secular and progressive homeschooling population.
But more than anything, what vulnerable homeschooled children need is you.
Homeschooling can be an incredible resource, and my colleagues at CRHE and I — all homeschool alumni — vociferously oppose banning homeschooling. Our research shows that homeschooling can be a better option than public school for children who are being underserved by their local school district (either because of disability, social concerns, or socioeconomic factors).
However, just because homeschooling can be fulfilling and successful for some children doesn’t mean that homeschooling communities should be left entirely to “self-police.” In Josh’s case, they were “self-policed” by a local police officer sternly lecturing Josh. Instead of a legitimate treatment program, Josh’s father sent him to help a family friend remodel their house. That officer himself would be convicted on child pornography charges.
In homeschool culture today, one of the most important pursuits is “parental rights.” That is, legal protections for parents who want to control their child’s entire identity, who want to isolate, neglect, abuse, and beat them. Nothing is as important as “parental rights” — not even the success or welfare of children. Parental rights are called “sacred,” and homeschooling leaders are aggressively pursuing this extremist, anti-child view in legislatures all across the country; they’ve succeeded in eleven states so far with their efforts accelerating.
Homeschool children and alumni need you to listen and learn from us about our experiences. Several states require no notice to homeschool a child, meaning there is no legal difference between homeschooling and truancy. In half of the United States, the only requirement homeschooling parents must fulfill is a notification form. Only two states — two — technically prevent convicted sexual abusers from living in a home where homeschooling occurs, and neither of those states have realistic enforcement mechanisms (one of them is Arkansas, where the Duggars homeschool their children). There are only five states which require credibly evaluated portfolios, and only a few of those have methods for intervening if a child is being educationally neglected. Homeschooled children sit at the nexus of every other childhood concern, from neglect and malnourishment to disabilities, neurodivergence, and racism; our crises can be horribly exacerbated by even the most well-intentioned caregiver.