This post reviews Jennifer Lois, “Emotionally Layered Accounts: Homeschoolers’ Justifications for Maternal Deviance” in Deviant Behavior 30, no. 2 (February 2009): 201-234
Lois, a sociology professor at Western Washington University, here investigates how homeschooling mothers deal with criticisms of their actions.
Lois begins by explaining that previous research has dealt mostly with criticisms and defenses of homeschooling by movement leaders and political opponents. She wanted to know more about how actual homeschooling moms dealt with the threat to their status as “good mothers” by critics, often close friends and family members, who worry that their homeschooling choice may be a sign of “real emotional problems.”
A second context for her study is the literatures on maternal deviance and on emotions. Lois notes that the deviance literature has tended to ignore deviant feelings in its focus on deviant behaviors, and the emotion literature has tended to ignore first person accounts of dealing with dissident emotions.
Though not a homeschooling mother herself, upon moving to Washington State Lois was drawn to the homeschooling world and spent four years attending PATH, “Parents Association for Teaching at Home” [throughout her study Lois uses pseudonyms. This organization’s real name is the Teaching Parents Association, or TPA]. During those four years she also conducted 24 in-depth interviews with homeschooling mothers, attended conventions, and immersed herself in homeschooling literature.
Though “PATH” isn’t exclusively Christian, most of its members are, and Lois’ interview sample reflects standard homeschooler demographics. 14 out of 24 were conservative protestant, 21 were white, all were female, 3.2 children on average, and mostly middle class.
Lois’ research revealed four specific charges raised against homeschooling mothers, to which four responses by these mothers were offered. First, homeschooling mothers were commonly charged with feeling academically arrogant: “They were cast as smug, irresponsible mothers who thought they could do a better job teaching their children than credentialed teachers in conventional schools.” (210)
Homeschooling mothers countered this charge by appealing to a value most Americans agree with: mothers know their children better than anyone else. Certified teachers may be experts at curriculum or classroom management, but mothers are experts on their own children.
A second criticism commonly voiced is that homeschooling mothers are socially overprotective. Homeschoolers are “irresponsible mothers who, because of their uncontrollable overprotectiveness, were failing their children by sheltering them from reality.” (214)
Homeschooling mothers respond again by appealing to commonly accepted sentiments. They note how schools can be brutal places where bullies humiliate, where academic talent is lampooned, where rigid social hierarchy is enforced, where peer obsession with fashion and mass culture takes over, where school bureaucracy (especially standardized testing) trumps the needs of individual students. Mothers also voice their desire to spare their children from receiving the pejorative “labels” given them by well-intentioned special educators or teachers. “Responsible mothers should protect their children” from stuff like this.
Third, homeschooling mothers are accused of feeling morally self righteous and extreme, be it the self-righteousness of the hippie counterculture or the fundamentalist theocrat.
Homeschoolers responded to this charge in a more complex way. Some mothers denied they were extremists and justified their homeschooling by appealing to common American values. One mother, for example, said, “I just want my children to have successful lives, to be good community members, pay their taxes, have good jobs…” These mothers are just trying to keep faith with the American dream even though the public school no longer works.
Other homeschooling mothers acknowledged their radical views but denied that they were bad. They defended their “God given” right to raise their children and hold up the family over the state as the key institution responsible for raising children. Such mothers are adamant in their rejection of the authority of the State to impose its views of evolution, gay rights, religious tolerance, and so on on their children. Their religious beliefs give them emotional confidence in their decision to protect their children from worldliness.
Finally, homeschooling mothers are accused of being relationally hyperengaged, of having an “abnormally strong desire to be emotionally and physically close to their children,” which caused them to be “excessively involved with every aspect of their lives.” (221) Such mothers are seen as sacrificing their child’s individuality to their own pathological emotional needs.
Mothers tended to respond to this charge by admitting the emotional bond but denying that it was pathological. They reverse the charge and see the broader culture as the unhealthy party in its rush to separate the child from the mother. One mother describes sending her child off to preschool, “All the kids were crying when they left their mothers. But we’re told they need to do this for their social development.” This mother, like most other homeschooling moms, rejected this view and celebrated the positive outcomes of strong mother-child bonds. In a culture that believes strongly in intensive mothering already, these moms argue that homeschooling is good mothering. They remind their critics of how so many Americans look back on their children’s early lives and regret that they didn’t spend enough time with them. Homeschooling mothers have no such regrets.
Lois’ scholarly point in all of this is to emphasize that people accused of deviance are not only accused of wrong behaviors but of wrong feelings. When confronted with such charges, individuals seeking to save face often respond by explaining how their feelings in fact are perfectly in line with societal norms. This was the strategy homeschooling mothers used in most cases. Unlike mothers struggling with postpartum depression, homeschooling mothers are not accused of having the wrong emotions (resentment, detachment, disappointment, etc.) but of too much of the right emotions. They are deviant because their mothering is deemed too intense. Homeschooling moms respond, often incredulously, by appealing to the very notion of good mothering that dominates middle class culture and explaining their attitudes in terms most Americans understand and accept.
I enjoyed reading this article. Those familiar with homeschoolers will find little here that is new or surprising, but Lois’ four categories nicely summarize the various criticisms of homeschooling, and her focus on maternal feelings gets it right I think. In my own conversations with homeschooling moms it has been very clear to me how personal this issue is. To critique homeschooling is not only to critique a political movement or a pedagogical practice but to critique these mothers’ very identities. Historically speaking, this is why (in my view) homeschooling beat its opposition so easily. The practice taps into the deepest of maternal sentiments and thus motivates homeschoolers to action with an intensity that school officials and other critics have never been able to match. Hell may, as Congreve said, have no fury like a woman scorned, but a homeschooling mother challenged comes in a close second.