Homeschooling and Memorization

Girl Wearing White Purple and Pink Floral Short Sleeve DressThe other day, I had a conversation with one of my brothers that migrated to the topic of our many odd experiences with the other homeschooled kids we knew growing up. (For a more detailed post about my homeschooling experience, click here.) Some of those kids were more sheltered than we were, and educated in the strangest ways. He mentioned a particular memory of my friend’s little brother. (Names have been changed to preserve privacy.) My brother said:

“Gloria’s brother was my age, so obviously he was supposed to hang out with me while you two were hanging out. He’d brought school work with him and asked me to quiz him. I said sure. He pulled out three or four sheets of paper just covered in the digits of pi. He got through like two pages before having any trouble.”

I hadn’t really thought about it before this conversation, but my brother’s experience definitely reflects many more that I’ve had. Many homeschooling families have a very intense focus on memorization, and some parents list the information their child has memorized as an example of how superior their child’s homeschool education must be to other forms of schooling.

I was always very proud of my memorization skills during my time as a homeschooler, perhaps because of the aforementioned notion that this meant I was better educated than some of my peers. I had memorized the names of all the books of the Bible. I could recite poems ranging in length from a stanza to several pages completely from memory. I knew all the US states and capitals, and historical dates with brief explanations of a corresponding event afterwards. (For example, I still remember 1620: Mayflower Lands Pilgrims in Plymouth Massachusetts). Sure, it’s not uncommon for kids in public school to memorize the states and capitals and the occasional date. But how useful is all this memorization if these lists of facts aren’t paired with other relevant information?

Heading into college, I found myself somewhat dissatisfied with my education in a lot of subjects. I began to see just how much I’d been missing. For instance, I still have huge gaps in my history education. Even with all the memorization, I was genuinely surprised by major events discussed in depth in my history-heavy humanities classes: events that had been briefly mentioned to me, but never really covered before in my homeschooling years. I also really don’t have a general sense of how the historical events flow into each other. I still see history as blocks of events and civilizations and cultures that exist completely separately in my mind, even though I realize they often existed at the same time, influencing each other. I may have a lot of the facts there, but they’re missing the connective tissue that’s vital to making sense of it all, and while I know not every teacher in every school presents these things well, I think the heavy focus on memorization  in my homeschooling education contributed to this disjointed understanding of history. You can memorize all the facts you want, but for them to mean anything, they have to be part of a big picture.

Maybe the ability to recall huge amounts of information is good for some subjects though. Curious about the usefulness of some of this memorization, I asked an engineer I know what he thought about the pi memorization exercise that my friend’s brother was doing. He told me that pi is useful in his math at work, but that knowing a lot of digits of pi is not. He certainly doesn’t type several pages of digits into his calculations manually just to use pi. The gist of our conversation ended with the conclusion that when you start learning more than a few digits beyond 3.14, it’s basically a party trick. There’s nothing wrong with learning it for fun, but it doesn’t have enough educational value to devote key math study time to learning it, even if you end up going into a math-heavy field as he did.

Practicing memorization is very good for one thing though: it’s excellent preparation for test taking. I know I can attribute at least some of my academic success to the fact that I’m pretty quick at memorizing information. Homeschooling did give me that. I don’t want it to seem like I hate memorization. I just think if you’re going to assign it, it should have a purpose. There are plenty of useful things you can have your child memorize. Geography facts are great for when you’re learning to navigate, or booking a vacation. Teach the names of the great lakes. The 5 boroughs of New York City. Children can practice public speaking by memorizing poetry, or famous speeches–but frame it that way. Know that that is why you’re doing it. And please don’t make your child memorize pages and pages of pi digits for math class unless they really want to do it.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about education and memorization, and when it’s useful. All opinions are welcome. Just be respectful of others and think things through before posting.

Happy thinking!

Nancy

 

An Online Community for Secular Homeschooling

school supplies

Image courtesy of bugtiger at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I just stumbled upon this website, and I’ve never been happier to find out that something exists. I knew there had to be secular homeschoolers out there somewhere, I’d just never met them before. On their forums, you’ll see posts written by homeschooling parents who are concerned about giving their children the best education possible without indoctrinating them with a religious ideology.

Seeing posts about finding good secular textbooks and syllabi and such has restored some of my faith in homeschooling as an educational method.

This is not to say that religious parents shouldn’t homeschool, or even that they shouldn’t teach their children about religion, but I’ve experienced varying degrees of terrible religious indoctrination through homeschooling texts throughout my education as a child. I’d like to see more homeschooling parents make a conscious effort to avoid biology and history books that focus on Genesis, and high school health texts that completely skip the topic of sex ed. As the person in charge of your child’s education, you owe it to your child to find the least biased sources you can. If you teach religion, it should be separate from other subjects.

On a completely unrelated note, I realize I’m returning from a bit of a hiatus. I’ve been doing temp work that’s made me change positions several times in the past few months, and that, combined with holiday business, has made it difficult for me to do anything on a schedule–but that’s changing. My most recent position is more long term, so I’m about to have a pretty consistent schedule for at least the next few months–longer if this leads to a permanent position. I’ll be blogging once a week again soon.

Feel free to leave a comment. All opinions are welcome. Just be respectful and think things through before posting.

Happy thinking!

Nancy

 

Advice to Parents Homeschooling in High School (from a Homeschooling Alumna)

I recently graduated from college with a bachelor’s degree. I’m still looking for work, but as far as homeschooling goes, on the surface I’m a success. I’ve been reading a lot of blogs lately from parents who have recently decided to homeschool their kids during high school, and I want to reach out to those parents about this since I was homeschooled for most of my education, and I wish my mom had known some of these things when she homeschooled me. In earlier childhood years, homeschooling is much simpler. Here are a few things to know if you’re homeschooling for high school:

1) Keep records of EVERYTHING. 

HSLDA agrees with me on this (scroll down to the section on Record Keeping). There will come a time when you will need to prove that your child received an education. Down the road, your child will be looking for employment, or applying to college, or even just getting a driver’s license for the first time. Guess what? A high school diploma or official transcript counts as a form of ID when you go to the DMV. Regardless of whether you’re getting a real diploma or printing one out, save every essay, every quiz, and every test. Keep it all organized by subject. Keep track of what curriculum you used for each, and what textbooks you used.

Here’s where HSLDA and I disagree. I strongly believe that if you print out a diploma on your computer, you run the risk of the DMV telling you it doesn’t count. You run the risk of an employer questioning whether or not you received an education. When you apply to a college, you will have to provide high school transcripts, and in the competitive world we live in, when it comes to college applications, you’re going to be hard pressed to convince admissions councilors that your mom didn’t just give you straight A’s to be nice if you don’t have proof that you actually did school work.

I still have the records from my high school career. As I’ve said in previous posts, I used a school called NARHS, which is a school in Maine that allows homeschoolers to follow the requirements in the state of Maine, submit documentation each year to the school, and receive annual transcripts, and a diploma after they complete all the requirements. I highly recommend that parents consider NARHS or a similar program. It still allowed my mother a lot of freedom to choose what books/curriculum she used, and I’ve never had anyone question whether or not my diploma was valid. Furthermore, NARHS’ transcripts allowed me to apply to colleges with relative ease.

The only issue I had was when one college told me they wanted quarterly transcripts, which NARHS did not give (at least at the time. This was five years ago.) because they only reviewed academic work annually, not quarterly. The college refused to speak to me or my mom about this, and only relented when a representative from NARHS talked to them.

Most homeschoolers, as HSLDA notes on their website, do not go through a school, and have no such representative to speak for them. As you can see, even with an official transcript and diploma, I had a homeschooling related issue when it came to applying for college.

I can’t even imagine what that process would have been like without going through NARHS. Many application processes still aren’t homeschool friendly–and I applied to colleges five years ago, when homeschooling wasn’t exactly a new phenomenon. The Common App, for example, asked me for the name of my guidance councilor. What homeschooler has a guidance councilor? I put in the name of my NARHS contact person, but I’m told that most homeschoolers put in the name of a parent. (On a paper form this wouldn’t be a problem, but online forms like the Common App often do not let you proceed if you skip a question or give an answer it considers invalid).

2) You need to be open to the idea of not teaching your child every subject yourself. 

If you are homeschooling by yourself, in all likelihood, you will not be capable of teaching your student every subject. Maybe you’re inclined toward science and the humanities escape you, or vice versa (In my experience, it was usually the other way around.) Whatever the subject, we all have that one area we hated in high school because we sucked at it. When you were homeschooling for elementary and middle school grades, a quick reading of a textbook chapter might refresh your memory enough to explain a concept, but by high school, the concepts are much more difficult to grasp, and you probably haven’t thought about them in a long time. Please, don’t let your inability to grasp (or remember) something slow down your child. Here are some options to consider in order to give your student a strong home education in the subjects you cannot tackle adequately:

1 – Get a tutor. Have someone else come in regularly to teach whatever that subject is for you.

2 – Look into homeschooling co-ops in your area. You may be able to find a group with a parent who majored in music to teach music classes, or a parent who is a chemist to teach chemistry.

3 – Especially in his or her junior and senior years, community colleges are a wonderful option. My mom signed me up for a basic chemistry course at the community college, and that helped knock out a lab requirement. It’s a bit like taking AP courses because it can allow you to graduate from high school with some college credit. In fact, it’s somewhat easier than AP classes because there’s no special AP test to study for, just the regular testing and assignments that go with the course. I transferred 9 college credits into my four year college, which put me in the same place as a lot of students who took AP courses in high school.

I especially recommend numbers 2 and 3 for science lab courses. A few of those are generally required if you want to get into college. I can tell you from experience that lab courses are very difficult to do successfully from home.

3) KEEP YOUR PRIORITIES STRAIGHT.

Is it more important that your student receives a good education, or that you control every aspect of that education? Every student has different needs. Homeschooling is not the best form of school for every student in every situation any more than public school is. Don’t get me wrong. I think homeschooling can be a great opportunity, and an excellent form of education. However, it doesn’t work for every student, or even continuously for every student. My mom did a lot of things right when she homeschooled me in high school, but she also did a lot of things wrong.

By the time she pulled me out of Catholic high school to homeschool me, something had changed. I was no longer of an age where homeschooling suited my personality or learning style. Even though I was inundated with copious amounts of homework in 9th grade, and the administration of my school was terrible, something new was happening–I was learning rapidly.

At home, my mother barely supervised me, and the result was that I only learned in subjects I had a particular interest in, which meant I wasn’t very well rounded academically. I was an excellent reader and writer, but I would pick what aspects of school interested me, and study only them. Without supervision, when I was told to study ancient Greece, I read the entire book of Greek myths my mother bought for me, but completely ignored any history text that explained actual historical events. As far as I was concerned, Zeus’ many extramarital affairs were far more interesting than actual history. I now understand why skipping the subjects I didn’t like was bad. When I got to college, there were enormous gaps in my knowledge because that was how my education had continued for years. When I had absolutely no choice but to do my least favorite school work, I looked for the answer keys my mom kept so that I could get it all done (in other words, cheat) quickly and go back to the subjects I enjoyed.

4) Be as picky as possible about your textbooks. Nope, pickier than that. No, no, even pickier.

Many homeschooling families are religious, and that’s completely fine. However, regardless of your religious background, you need to be aware that the vast majority of the popular homeschooling texts out there are written with a particular religious worldview in mind, sometimes (too frequently) with absolutely no regard for facts. Over the years I used all kinds of textbooks in every subject–books written by Mennonites, Evangelical Christians, and Catholics. Many of the things I read turned out to be partially or completely wrong. I had a health book that used an outdated food pyramid, told me women are not allowed to have short hair, and completely skipped over sex ed. You might belong to one of those above groups or none of them, but what ultimately matters is that the information you’re teaching your child is as accurate as possible. While it’s nearly impossible to completely avoid biased writing, if you can find a secular (that doesn’t mean anti-religious. It means neutral. It means not religious) text for as many subjects as possible (except religion if you’re teaching that. Use whatever you want for religion), especially for science, history, and health, please do it.

Also, find a health text that teaches comprehensive sex ed. How you discuss these subjects with your child is your decision, but there’s a lot of misinformation out there. Make sure what you’re teaching is as accurate as possible. I didn’t fully understand the concept of consent until I was in college, which was too late because it was after I had been sexually assaulted (I was in high school when that happened, and it was by another sheltered homeschooler.) There were other hideous gaps in my knowledge that I’m still filling–and I’m a college graduate.

Your children deserve the best education that they can get. It’s up to you if you  homeschool. Good luck.

Anyone have any other advice they’d add? Any questions? Anything here you disagree with? All opinions are welcome. Just be respectful and think things through before commenting.

-Nancy

When Christians Aren’t Biblical Literalists: a Video Recommendation

One of my favorite YouTube channels is Blimey Cow. Yes, they’re Christian. They’re also former homeschoolers, so they get me. They’re pretty down to earth, and they seem to genuinely use their brains. Their content walks a fine line, avoiding topics that would offend most liberals and conservatives alike, and I generally get the sense that regardless of what their religious beliefs are, they like to observe the way things genuinely are, things everybody knows are there, and talk about them. I get the impression that they aren’t literalists when it comes to the Bible. Sometimes their own religion isn’t off limits, and I appreciate their openness to talking about that. Their latest video is a great example. It’s called “Five Awkward Things in the Bible,” and I think the points they make are spot on.

If you’re a homeschooler or know any homeschoolers, they’re known for their “You Might be a Homeschooler If” videos. Here’s the first one:

Recommended Reading: Conservative and Progressive Views on Sexual Morality

I’ve considered weighing in on the Josh Duggar situation and the conservative reaction to it, but this post does such a fantastic job, and explains why that reaction makes sense from a conservative mindset, so I won’t add much to it before sharing the link.

To give you some background, Josh Duggar is known to have molested five girls, some of whom were his sisters, when he was 14. He is now 27. He never faced criminal charges for it, and the conservative reaction has been fairly supportive of him, whereas progressives are frustrated that his transgression was swept under the rug for so long, and that there has been no justice for his victims. The Young Turks go over the details in this video if you want the full story.

As a former homeschooler with pretty harsh feelings towards families like the Duggars of TLC’s 19 Kids and Counting, this scenario only increases my frustration with this family and the conservative celebration of their backwards, antiquated, sexist lifestyle. I have a hard time looking at it objectively, but Libby Anne from Patheos, in a blog post that was shared on the Homeschoolers Anonymous blog, was able to take a step back and examine why conservatives have reacted with so much support for Josh Duggar and so much frustration and even harsh language towards progressives. The post is titled “Josh Duggar and the Tale of Two Boxes” and can be read here.

If you have conservative, religious friends and family members with differing sexual mores and have trouble talking about these things with them, this is for you. And them. Maybe they should read it too.

Happy thinking!

-Nancy

Homeschooling: My Experience

Image courtesy of photostock at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of photostock at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

As you may know if you’ve read some of the posts on my blog, I was homeschooled for the majority of my education. As a homeschooler, I used to get a lot of questions in my daily life about whether or not I enjoyed it, how I made friends, etc. I always answered those questions positively, but lately I’ve had some negative feelings towards my personal homeschooling experience, and a change of heart in how I think homeschooling should be treated by the government. I don’t think it should be banned, nor do I think that every family that homeschools does so for the wrong reasons. However, I might personally have benefited from going to public school in high school, or from being homeschooled in a different way. I can’t possibly cover all of the details of my entire homeschooling experience in one post (it encompasses the majority of my education, with the exception of 9th grade and college), but I’ll summarize what I remember and discuss my working opinion on it.

My homeschooling experience was pretty good in elementary school. My mother taught me how to read, and how to do math, as well as other subjects. While I did get a bit behind in math (I took forever to learn multiplication), I loved being homeschooled. I had plenty of close friends who were my age–most of them also homeschooled–who either attended church with me, or went to the same weekly co-op* classes.

Well into my elementary school years, but not quite at the end of them, my younger brother was diagnosed with dyslexia, and my mother began to focus most of her attention on him. While I probably didn’t experience as much educational neglect as some, even my mother will admit that she found herself focusing less and less on my education in order to help my brother learn to read. She also had to walk him through other subjects since he couldn’t sit down and read a chapter in a textbook by himself, or fill out a workbook without assistance reading and writing. His dyslexia was severe; eventually she realized he was beyond any assistance she could give him, and put him in public school. I don’t blame her for spending so much time with him initially in the hopes that she could continue to homeschool him. However, I am frustrated that she never really returned to me afterwords. Even after he went to school, she supervised my education about as much as a high school substitute teacher does.

Because I loved to read, I was reading–Nancy Drew and The Saddle Club, but from about fifth through 8th grade, I learned very little without teaching it to myself. How was I supposed to know what I should be learning about? My mother did give me educational materials, but because she barely supervised me, I excelled in the subjects that interested me and almost completely ignored the ones that didn’t. Thankfully, she found some decent math books (The “Key To” workbooks saved me from complete mathematical incompetency.) So I began to make up for lost ground in math. She also gave me books on ancient Greece and Rome, and I completely devoured the book on Greek Myths she gave me. I recently found a timeline she helped me make, which I never finished. It began with the creation story, and included such Biblical adventures as “The Flood,” interspersed with real historical events. There was a constant thread of Christianity throughout my education, and it invaded every subject. Even the Key To books were made by a Christian company.

9th grade was terrible. My mother decided she didn’t have it in her to homeschool me through high school (not that she was supervising me much to begin with), so I asked to go to Catholic school. The one I attended turned out to have a terrible administration, and a heavier workload than what I have in college right now as a senior. I was a straight A student somehow, but I was exhausted and miserable. Because it was a private school, my parents blew what little money they had saved for my future college education paying for it; (which shows they didn’t have much saved up, but still). In hindsight, I should have gone to public school. Seeing how miserable I was, my mother took me out of that school at the end of the year to homeschool me again. She told me public school was my other option, but I refused at that point. I didn’t think it could be any better than the private school, since that was “real school” too, and my experience had been so terrible.

Homeschooling for high school was very different from homeschooling for the lower grades. There are fewer people who continue all the way through those years, so I often lost my peers to traditional education. Another way in which high school homeschooling differs from other years is that for many families, the question of being able to get into college is a big deal. This means being more organized, perhaps even homeschooling through a school that provides a diploma (I used NARHS). This was a good thing, because for once I was keeping track of my courses, the time I spent doing them, and what I did. My mother got me involved with a Catholic homeschooling co-op too, thinking that would be a great way for me to meet more high school aged homeschoolers, and take some classes. The co-op involved families with children of all ages, and the year I joined, about two thirds of the high schoolers were about to graduate. I didn’t make many friends there, though. I quickly discovered that they were from a stricter form of Catholicism than my parents–something I hadn’t known existed.

I’m working on a page about this now, but basically, some Catholics refuse to acknowledge the decisions of the Second Vatican Council (also known as Vatican II), and insist on some rituals that seem antiquated to the more mainstream, Roman Catholics. Wikipedia describes this stricter group as “Traditionalist Catholics,” but I knew them as Tridentine Catholics–“Tridentine” referring to the type of mass they attend, which is always in Latin.  Since my experience with this group, I’ve heard them referred to as “fundamentalist Catholics.” While they aren’t Biblical literalists, that description and the negative connotation of “fundamentalist” illustrates the way I felt about many of their beliefs, even when I was a practicing Catholic.

To make a long story short, these people were Catholic versions of the Duggar family. The average number of children in a family was somewhere around six or seven. It would be higher except for those families with low fertility or who married at an older age. I knew one woman who had birthed twelve children naturally. Another mother at that co-op told me that Catholics need to have lots of babies because Muslims are having more babies than Catholics, and it’s important to maintain a Christian majority. Most of the Tridentine women also followed what they referred to as “Vatican Modesty Guidelines.” I had to do a bit of searching to find what they were talking about–something about necklines and two fingers…but I found this page here, and suddenly understood why they all dressed like they were from the wrong decade, while the boys dressed normally. (The Duggars dress a lot like them, if you’re curious as to what that looks like.) The Tridentines had sexist habits too, for example, they always asked boys to lead prayer if there were any on hand, even if the only one available was six years old and not particularly good at leading prayer. Not only did I not fit in in my jeans and t-shirts, but I was also a woman. I soon discovered that the preferred Tridentine options for my gender were between perpetual baby making and joining a convent, neither of which appealed to me. I wanted 2.5 kids and a nuclear family, a fairly conservative aspiration, and for that, I was strange.

After two years of not learning much at co-op, and rebelling a little, my mother sent me to my local community college to take classes. It was a fantastic decision. I earned transferable college credits that wound up saving me time and allowing me to take more courses that interested me when I became a real undergraduate. I also learned real information. I took a chemistry course–my first well-taught science course, perhaps in my entire life. I also took intro to psychology, a course I recommend to everyone. Aside from my time at the community college, most of my homeschooling experience in high school was useless as far as learning is concerned. I was thoroughly under prepared for my college major (English) because I read very little cannon literature in high school, and did little to no analysis of what I read. My mom didn’t know what was typically required and didn’t bother to research it for the most part (or didn’t implement what she’d researched). I took two years to finish geometry, and the same amount of time to finish biology, and can’t remember much. I taught myself algebra II, and wound up retaking it in college. I taught myself physics, inventing my own labs, and I’d be lying if I said I actually learned anything. The best I could do was memorize. I couldn’t really apply much of my knowledge. Lucky for me, the tests weren’t hard.

One of my biggest complaints about my homeschooling experience is the quality of the educational materials with which I was supplied. My mother, like many of the Christian and Catholic homeschoolers we knew, believed that Christian publications were the best option, since they proclaimed God-centered facts. The problem she didn’t anticipate was that in order to do this, they often had to teach false or irrelevant information. Take the American history book that was forced upon me in high school, for example. My middle school years had been filled with trips to historic sites in places like Williamsburg and Philadelphia, so I had a clear sense that America had more protestant than Catholic influences, but this book begs to differ. In it, I learned a version of American history that emphasized Catholic contributions to US history above all others, and frankly stretched some facts upon further examination.

Perhaps the worst texts I ever used were the LIFEPAC high school health workbooks from Alpha Omega publications. The name of the publisher alone gives away the bias, and boy did it have one. It was a fundamentalist health text that spent way too much time on spiritual instruction and skipped sex ed altogether. It also contained tons of outdated information that even I, sheltered and under instructed though I was, noticed.

I did graduate with a high school diploma. I did finish my work. The paperwork says I was educated, but in hindsight, I beg to differ. I’ve spent every year of my college education playing catch-up in my classes, and in my social life. My home education did not prepare me for life outside of home. I prepared myself for that life with little assistance in far too many areas.

Because of my experience, I support legislation that would set some regulations for homeschooling. I’d like it to remain legal, but there needs to be a system in place to prevent educational neglect, while still giving parents the freedom to help their children learn at their own pace and in whatever learning style that best suits them. I personally believe that homeschooled students should be evaluated about once per year, maybe twice. They should have to show that they’re actually doing work. I strongly feel there should also be legislation preventing parents from using propaganda textbooks. Sure, teach your kids your religion, but don’t corrupt their education with it by refusing to teach them anything else. I’m fine with parents choosing their texts as long as the options are all actually good, factual ones. Currently, there are way too many pseudo-educational texts, and homeschoolers use many of them.

The problem I have with homeschooling isn’t homeschooling itself. It’s the fact that so many families choose it in order to shelter and indoctrinate their children. I was hardly exposed to non-Catholics prior to college. I didn’t learn how sex worked until I was 15, and many of the “facts” I was given about it at the time were incorrect because I learned them from another high school kid.

This sheltering and indoctrination is what I often jokingly refer to as homeschooling “on the wrong side of the closet.” It’s a serious problem though. Some children enter the world having no idea that a fair number of the people they’ll meet in the working world will not follow their exact form of Christianity, will not be straight, will not be white, and will not be republican. It shocked the heck out of me when I first realized as a college freshman that the majority of students in one of my classrooms thought the legalization of gay marriage in the US was inevitable. I agree with those people now, but I used to think it couldn’t possibly be true; everyone I’d met before then, except for a handful of people, supported DOMA. I was so sheltered that I hadn’t been exposed much to democrats. I don’t want future children to be as unaware of reality as I was, or to grow up without ever being taught important facts. I want them to be more prepared than I was for everyday life outside of their parents’ watchful over protection.

What are your thoughts on homeschooling? Have you had an experience with it? Feel free to comment. All opinions are welcome, just be respectful and think through your comments before posting.

Happy thinking!

-Nancy

 

* (In homeschooling “co-op” is when a group of parents who live near an area, often but not always subscribing to the same religious beliefs, get together regularly with their kids, and the parents take turns teaching classes to groups of the kids in subjects that they’re good at. A parent with an art background taught art, one with a chemistry background would teach chemistry, etc. It’s as close to traditional school as homeschooling usually gets.)

 

 

Monitored Visitation: The Shackles of Courtship

Image courtesy of stockimages at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of stockimages at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Imagine being restricted to monitored phone calls, and visitation during specified hours, with guests who must go through a detailed security screening. Sounds like prison, right? What if dating worked that way?

While this does not reflect how many people experience dating, it is the reality for some, who participate in a form of dating commonly used and promoted by the deeply religious:  courting. Courting is often defined as dating with marriage as the ultimate goal. Despite it being a fairly accepted definition in my experience, I find it to not be a very clear one. There are plenty of people who consider what they do “dating,” not “courting,” for whom marriage is still the ultimate goal. I consider myself to be one of those people. True, dating can be casual, but many people enter long-term relationships prior to marriage with the intention of finding a spouse or life partner, and those relationships should not be discounted as less serious just because those involved do not label themselves as “courting.”

Another problem I have with that definition is that it says nothing about how it differs from dating in practice, only how the two differ in intent. In my experience, the main difference in the way the two are practiced is who is in control. In dating, the people making the decisions are typically the people who are dating each other. While a dating couple may choose to involve their families by introducing each other to them and asking for their advice, that isn’t typically the be-all, end-all. Dating partners are free to make their own decisions, with or without their parents’ approval. Courtship, in my experience, is the complete opposite. In courtship, the parents of the couple (especially the girl’s parents) tend to have at at least a fifty percent say in every decision–sometimes more. It is usually the father who has the most power, as the man and head of the household. He often maintains complete veto power over any and all decisions. As one girl explains, “my parents were firmly entrenched in the values of courtship, and any potential relationship would be controlled completely by my father.” (Check out her story about rebelling against her patriarchal family here.) In courtship, the parents are with the couple every step of the way, sometimes in ways that are downright invasive, and excessive. This control is the main issue I take with the practice.

At one of my homeschooling co-ops back in high school, there was a young couple (seniors) I suspected would be getting together soon. They were always side by side at co-op, and had chemistry so thick that the air practically dripped with their excitement to be with each other. I soon discovered that they were together in a sense, however, they were expected to court. I don’t know much about their courting experience because we weren’t close, but I did hear one startling thing:  when it came to communication over distances, they were required to limit themselves to infrequent phone calls–every other week. Furthermore, each and every one of those phone calls had to be monitored by their parents. I realize this sounds bizarre. What parent tells his or her daughter “Oh, you two want to talk? You can call him next Thursday. But I have to be on the other line.” It’s ridiculous. I used to make excuses for it. They’re teenagers, I said. Their parents want what’s best for them. Maybe their parents don’t trust them to date, so they’re taking extra precautions. This kind of parental monitoring doesn’t end when children turn 18, though. In families that practice courting, this level of parental control is expected, no matter what age the children are when they begin to look for a future spouse. You may have laughed when you saw 30-year-old Toula Portokalos in the beginning of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, living with no freedom at the mercy of her father’s control, but there are real people in the United States living this antiquated life.

Fast forward four years. I’m now a senior in college, and during the fall semester, one of the student organizations I’m part of planned a mandatory, 2-day retreat for its leaders. As annoyed as I was for having to attend something at a time when I had a great deal of assignments due, I had a good time and really got to know the other members of the group. In a brief dull moment though, I did a head count, and realized someone was missing. Someone who had attended every meeting. On the way back, one of the attendees told me why. The missing student is Indian. (Meaning, she’s from India. I wish I didn’t have to explain this, but there was this idiot called Columbus.)  Her family is very strict, and as a rule, they do not permit her to spend the night anywhere other than home without her parents. No slumber parties. No retreats. Nothing. If she were under 18, I wouldn’t make a big deal about this, but she’s an adult college student with a job. Legally, she’s autonomous, but in her family, she isn’t. While this particular example isn’t overtly part of the culture of courting, I suspect that it stems from a similar source. This type of precaution, like the excessive monitoring of potential suitors, is often presented by conservative families as a way of protecting the girl’s purity–her virginity. The father ensures it by keeping his eye on her. I do not know if this is the case for her family, but a fair number of Indian families practice arranged marriage. It is still common in their culture, and I have known a young man who was nearly forced into one. Excessive parental control works well with a culture that promotes parents’ choice over the couple’s. The more I learn about courting, the more I see how it can become dangerously close to arranged marriage.

Why is courting even popular when it is so controlling? Like many things in the conservative world, the popularity of courting is largely due to a negative attitude toward pre-marital sex. It is the perfect way for parents to do their darnedest to prevent that awful deed. During my strict religious upbringing, the idea that pre-marital sex can ruin relationships was presented to me frequently. Supposedly, couples who have sex before marriage do not get to know each other as individuals, just as objects to fuck. This makes their relationships doomed to fail. Also, God doesn’t like it, therefore courting is the Godly thing to do. The important thing, as usual, is keeping people “pure.”

Maybe there’s a way to do it right, but based on what I’ve seen of it, it sucks. If anything, courting actually prevents couples from getting to know each other thoroughly enough to commit to marriage, thanks to the constant chaperoning and excessive parental involvement. The more I think about it, the more I worry about people like that aforementioned couple I knew, and the Duggar daughters of 19 Kids and Counting, who also believe in courtship rather than dating.

Because they are in the public eye, the Duggars are an excellent example of courtship that can be examined in detail. An article I found, called “The Duggars’ 7 Rules of Courtship” sums up some of their courtship rules. Much like that young couple I knew, the Duggar children are somewhat restricted to monitored correspondence. Their parents expect their text messages to each other to all come in the form of group texts that go out to the Duggar parents too. The article describes how that works, and quotes the father of the family, Jim Bob, on the subject:

“It’s neat to see their conversations,” says Jim Bob, adding that the couple texts about everything from scripture to their future as a family and ideas on parenting. For the most part, Jim Bob and Michelle don’t chime in. But occasionally they do.

I’ve seen conservative parents comment on their children’s Facebook pages, actively getting in the way of their children expressing opinions that differ from theirs. Because of that, I find it hard to believe that Jim Bob and Michelle don’t chime in much, and don’t influence the conversation much with their presence. Even if they exercise restraint and really do only comment “occasionally,” the fact that they are included in the conversation means that every text is carefully constructed; it is a performance. The daughter must uphold the image of absolute purity that the parents expect, and the man must tread carefully, choosing subjects of conversation that are fit for the dinner table. If they really do have conversations about their future and ideas on parenting, I doubt they do so using their real opinions and observations because of the possibility of offending the ever-watching Duggar parents.

What kind of relationship are they building? I was relieved that shortly after that quote, it says that the couple is permitted private phone conversations for one hour per night. That’s a step in the right direction–but only a step. How private is a phone conversation in a family with 19 kids who share bedrooms (which is the case for them)? Where does the couple go to find privacy? What if they want to have a conversation about sex? If you’re serious about marriage, you need to (at some point) have open dialogue about sex, about your expectations, hopes, fears, and to clear up any confusion you have about how it works before you–you know–start. I realize they believe in waiting until marriage, but imagine going into your wedding night having never had the chance to talk to your spouse about what’s going to happen that night? That conversation is important, and with mommy, daddy, and 18 siblings wandering around, it’s not likely to occur.

I’d complain about their “no kissing, no hand holding” rules, which I’ve always considered to be extraordinarily excessive, (I know people who set similar boundaries), but really, it’s up to the couple to decide what physical boundaries are right for them. For some people, the boundary is “no butt stuff.” For others, it’s “clothes stay on.” I’m fine with that. I’m a little concerned, though, that the parents had too much say in this decision. While I understand that the parents want their children to practice the kind of pure relationship building that their religious beliefs mandate, as I’ve stated in my post about purity pledging, it works a heck of a lot better when the couple chooses it for themselves, setting boundaries that they think are important. If a couple says “We’re not kissing before marriage” because their parents want them to, but that doesn’t fit what they want as a couple (or as individuals), they’re probably going to end up kissing before marriage. I say this as someone who practiced “purity” because my parents believed kissing should be the furthest one goes before marriage, and watched my line get redrawn further and further and further until finally I literally said “fuck it,” and did just that. I wasn’t making a purity pledge for myself. I was making it for them, for my religion, and for the people around me who said it was the right thing to do. As those reasons melted away, so did my sexual boundaries. I’m not the only one who’s experienced this phenomenon either. It’s an 8-part story, but this girl promised she wouldn’t kiss before marriage as part of her courting experience, and in short, that’s not what happened.

Ultimately, in any form of romantic relationship building, the actual members of the relationship are the important ones. They need to form a bond with each other. They need to find common ground. They need to understand and appreciate their differences. They need to learn how to talk about subjects they wouldn’t discuss in front of their parents, because those subjects will all become part of their lives if they get married. I’m completely fine with “dating with marriage as the ultimate goal.” What I’m not fine with, is two adults dating under the constant watch of daddy and mommy, with daddy getting the final say in any and all decisions. An adult should be able to have a private conversation with his or her significant other without their parents’ knowledge or permission. An adult should be able to make his or her own decisions.

Happy thinking!

-Nancy