Here’s How the Conservative Homeschool Movement Was Narcissistic

As I have journeyed out of the conservative homeschool movement, I have heard many stories of young people who have had to deal with narcissistic parents. These parents controlled, abused, and manipulated their children during their growing-up years. And they continue to do so, even though, in some cases, their children have gotten married.

What is narcissism? According to psychotherapist Alan Rappoport:

Narcissism, a psychological state rooted in extremely low self-esteem, is a common syndrome among the parents of psychotherapy patients. Narcissistic people are very fearful of not being well regarded by others, and they therefore attempt to control others’ behavior and viewpoints in order to protect their self-esteem.

The underlying dynamic of narcissism is a deep, usually unconscious, sense of oneself as dangerously inadequate and vulnerable to blame and rejection. The common use of the term refers to some of the ways people defend themselves against this narcissistic dynamic: a concern with one’s own physical and social image, a preoccupation with one’s own thoughts and feelings, and a sense of grandiosity.

There are, however, many other behaviors that can stem from narcissistic concerns, such as immersion in one’s own affairs to the exclusion of others, an inability to empathize with other’s experience, interpersonal rigidity, an insistence that one’s opinions and values are “right,” and a tendency to be easily offended and take things personally.

Quite frankly, I believe that the entire conservative homeschooling movement is more or less narcissistic, based on its characteristics as well as its results. I don’t mean that all homeschool parents are or were narcissists, but that the movement itself was narcissistic, and taught parents to act and think in narcissistic ways.

Dr. Rappoport states that narcissistic parents “may also demand certain behavior from their children because they see the children as extensions of themselves, and need the children to represent them in the world in ways that meet the parents’ emotional needs.” (Emphasis mine)

Psychiatrist Mark Banschick adds: “Another characteristic typical of narcissists is a disregard of personal boundaries… A narcissist will often treat others, especially those that are close to him, as if they are there to fulfill his needs and expectations.”

Seeing their children as extensions of themselves. That describes, so well, the views of ATI, Vision Forum, and many other organizations and teachers. The whole point is “raising up the foundations of many Godly generations”, or producing “good arrows for the quiver”.

It all looked good at the beginning. Who wouldn’t want their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren to all be following God? However, while that was a noble goal or ideal, the means used to try to achieve it were not.

But that’s not the only narcissistic characteristic of the conservative homeschool movement. There were a lot more of them. For the purposes of this list, I am going to focus on what I saw in ATI, which was the homeschool community I was most familiar with. From my experience, many of these characteristics were also typical of many non-ATI conservative homeschoolers as well. Of course, Bill Gothard’s influence spread well beyond the confines of ATI, so many of these people were probably influenced by him (directly or indirectly), even if they didn’t join his homeschool program (ATI).

From my perspective, ATI had the following narcissistic traits:

  • An inflated sense of importance. We were all really special, and would do really well, just because we were homeschool families.
  • Failure to accept people as flawed human beings. If someone wasn’t on-board with ATI’s thinking, they were suspect and should be avoided.
  • The need to make authorities look good. Have bright eyes, be well dressed, and act right— in part so that parents, ATI, and others looked good.
  • Parents were always right. They were the communicators of God’s will. And you’d better not criticize them.
  • Children were isolated with their families. Everything was made to revolve around the family. Ultimately, this meant that everything revolved around the dad, since he was the Top Umbrella. Alternately, it sometimes meant that everything revolved around the mom, if she was more dominant.
  • Children were to submit to their parents until marriage. They were not allowed to develop their own lives. Instead, their lives were supposed to revolve around their parents.
  • Failure to comply with parents’ wishes, even by young adults, was called “rebellion”.
  • Girls’ main purpose in life was to serve “their man”: first their father, then their husband. Within some families, this was especially extreme—one young woman stated that “Even though I’m not married, I would not call myself single because I’m part of a family unit. I’m so grateful for my father because he finds things for me to do to serve the Lord and to work for him. And I always feel like my life is full of purpose and I’m not sitting around, waiting. I’m an unmarried young lady, but I’m serving God and my father.”
  • Since life revolved around the family, young people, especially women, were not encouraged to step out on their own in ministry—unless they were serving with IBLP!
  • We were RIGHT. We had truth that everyone else was missing. And to make sure you weren’t corrupted, you’d better not check any opposing viewpoints.
  • God was also portrayed as narcissistic. This was huge. Gothard taught that you needed to do all the right things so God would be nice to you. This is exactly the way that a child has to relate to a narcissistic parent. Unfortunately, one can never be perfect enough—either for a narcissistic parent or a narcissistic god.
  • This portrayal of God as a narcissist also caused parents to be narcissistic to their children. Those who grow up under narcissistic parents are likely to either become narcissists themselves, or to continue to relate to others as they did to their narcissistic parents. So it is, I think, for those who believe that they serve a narcissistic god.

What do you think? Do you see these characteristics as well? Did I miss some? Or am I missing the point completely? Please share in the comments!

Note: I do want to make clear that I am not speaking about ALL homeschoolers, but specifically the conservative Christian homeschool culture that I grew up in.

For more reading on narcissism:

Co-Narcissism: How We Adapt to Narcissistic Parents

The Narcissistic Father: How a Narcissistic Dad Can Affect Your Life

The Truth About Narcissistic Personality Disorder

Photo © by CanStockPhoto/piedmont_photo


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16 Replies to “Here’s How the Conservative Homeschool Movement Was Narcissistic”

  1. Joel, I have no way of knowing if it will happen, but I hope your vision and fresh ways of looking at this tired world spread widely and impact many. I had to Google “ATI” because the acronym was new to me and the results chilled my bones. Thanks

  2. I’d probably consider changing the title so that it does not indict All Conservative Homeschoolers Everywhere, and limit your scope to ATI in particular, since that was the main thrust of your article.

    You have made some excellent points, but you are painting with a too broad a brush, and it weakens the essay.

    (As a side note, someone who worked for HSLDA once described ATI families as being in a “donut distribution.” To paraphrase his comment, some of the families were wonderful, healthy and amazing… and the others were Totally Messed Up. I found that an interesting comment.)

    1. Thanks for your thoughts, Vicki! I do understand what you mean about the broad brush.

      However, I will say that I have observed these traits in teachers outside of ATI as well. Not necessarily all the traits in every teacher, but many of them (for example, the Pearls, Doug Phillips/Vision Forum, Denny Kenaston, Jonathan Lindvall, and probably others who I am not familiar enough with to make a good assessment) embraced much of this same sort of mindset.

      In regards to the HSLDA worker’s comment: part of ATI’s teaching was a huge focus on image. We all looked up to the “perfect ATI families”. In retrospect, I now realize that there were nice-looking families who had terrible problems behind closed doors. I do agree that there were probably healthy, amazing families in ATI, but I suspect that the number is significantly lower than we would have thought back when we were part of ATI.

  3. I really liked the points you brought up in this article. Controlling parents and the family-only mentality, as well as all the other things you brought up, are definitely harmful elements to the conservative homeschool movement. However, what really caught my eye, was the places where you mentioned how children were unable to grow up into their own unique person and when you said that young women were taught to serve the men in your lives. Now, I am seeking after what the Bible says and am struggling with this particular issue right now. Yet, I am still curious as to what you believe on this issue, seeing as you came from such a conservative background. Since you have rejected the mission of the woman to serve her father and then her husband (of course second to her God), what DO you deem her mission according to the Bible’s teaching? For one of the main elements of society that the Bible highlights is indeed the family, and in the New Testament, there is a great focus, when speaking of how women, especially wives, are to live with regards to how they act towards their husbands and children. On the other hand, in conservative Christianity, I notice the tendency to long for the way things were in the past, dreaming of the time when women played a more feminine role and men a more masculine one. I understand that the past customs are not the ones we should strive after, for ever since Adam and Eve, society has been flawed. I know it is the Bible that should be our real standard for living, not the past, present, or future customs. So, I’m curious what you think the Bible says about the role of individuals and those in the context of families, especially with regards to woman’s role. As I seek to find God’s truth in this area, I am sure I would profit from seeing how you, my fellow Christian, though just as fallible as I, believe in this matter.

    – An anonymous sister in Christ

    PS: I hope what I am asking makes sense. I’m not always the best at explaining things.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Ann! I understand your question. I, too, have been processing these questions and trying to determine God’s will for how men and women are to act toward God and each other.

      I would like to give you a longer response at some point. For now, I suggest that you read and also scroll down to the comments, where I posted a comment with some of my thoughts on these matters.

      Blessings to you!

  4. Do you still advocate for homeschooling in general? I always debate about this is my head – homeschool, christian school or public school? When you grew up in public school it is hard to know!!

    1. I believe that homeschooling is definitely a great way to teach children. Like any other form of schooling, it can be good or bad depending upon the methods and curriculums used.

      I don’t believe that homeschooling is the onlyway for children to learn. That was an unfortunate message of the conservative homeschool movement. God gives parents the freedom to choose how their children learn, and I believe He guides each family into what is best for their kids.

      Don’t view homeschooling as a means of sheltering your children from the evil world. Some of that is excellent, especially when children are young. However, a “hunker-in-the-bunker” mentality will often ultimately lead to young people who are either afraid to act on their own and become independent adults, or who reject the bunker entirely and go off in rebellion. (Whether this rebellion is just against the way they were raised, or against God as well, will vary from person to person.)

      The best and safest method to raise your children is the method that God tells you to use. And that may be different from the one that He tells me to use. Which is fine, because He’s God, and I’m not. 🙂

  5. Holy crap! I’ve just had so many epiphanies about my teenage years reading this. Only replace “homeschool” with “church”. Why did i never realize the narssism of the church my dad was a pastor of?! I realized that I was an extension of the church and that’s why the expectation was on me to be perfect. Thanks so much for this. Mind. Blown.

  6. I was homeschooled it was hell I hated it with a passion I struggled severely with depression and begged my mom to send me to school . Which she refused! I think you hit the nail on the head …

  7. Hello Joel, I’ve been wondering whether homeschooling may have led to some of the severe right-wing, anti-science adults who are against taking precautions against Covid, for example, and who believe in wild conspiracy theories? It seems so common these days.
    Thank you in advance for your thoughts on this.

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