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:
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