THE TRANSMISSION OF VALUES: Do Homeschooled Christian Kids Keep the Faith as Adults?

Record: Braden Ryan Hoelzle, “The Transmission of Values and the Transition into Adulthood Within the Context of Home Education” in Journal of Research on Christian Education 22, no. 3 (2013), pp. 244-263.

Summary:  Hoelzle, a doctoral student in education at Southern Methodist University, here presents the results of a qualitative study of four young adults, all of whom had been homeschooled for eight or more years.  His goal was to assess the success of the strategy of using homeschooling to pass on parental religious and moral values.

Hoelzle reveals at the outset that he himself is an evangelical Christian who is hoping to use homeschooling as a way to transmit his values to his own children.  But so far the scholarship on this question is very thin.  He mentions Brian Ray’s oft-cited but methodologically weak 2004 survey of young adults who had been homeschooled, finding its generalizations too generic.  He wants to know in a deeper, richer way just what homeschooled children think about the religious convictions of their parents once they leave.

To find out he interviewed four young adults who had been homeschooled 8 or more years, two men and two women.  All were raised in conservative Christian homes by parents motivated by a desire to pass on their moral and religious values.  Two of the subjects are older (age 32 and 30) and seem to have been friends or at least associates of Hoelzle’s.  The other two are younger (23 and 18) and were recruited for the study from a Christian support group to which Hoelzle had access.

After an extensive interview with each subject, Hoelzle used an “unrestricted open coding process” to systematize his data.  He chose in this article to limit his analysis to two categories–“transmission of values” and “transition into adulthood.”

For transmission of values he found that the two 30 year-olds remained broadly evangelical in their basic outlook on life, while the twentysomethings seemed to have moved away from the faith to some degree.  But even the older cohort described their own views as considerably more tolerant and moderate than their parents’.  To cite but one of many examples Hoelzle provides, one of the older subjects no longer ascribes to her parents’ Providential view of American history (a very popular orientation among homeschoolers):

I feel like when we were being homeschooled the party line was that our founding fathers were believers and we need to follow in that tradition and in that line.  And now I feel like more of what I’m coming across says that ‘yes’ they may have been Deists, but to me it’s less important to believe that America is a Christian nation than it is to focus on my own personal faith in my family, and I don’t feel like America has any promises from God that it can hold on to absolutely. (p. 255)

Hoelzle speculates that it may be the parental “pioneer” spirit of individualistic rejection of the American mainstream that inspires their children to reject their parents’ views.  Kids might internalize parental anti-authoritarianism more than their conservative ideology.

For transition to adulthood Hoelzle found that while none of the children experienced the stereotypical period of adolescent “rebellion,” they did all experience growing tensions as they grew older until it became clear to each of them that it was “time to fly,” to strike out on their own.  All reported having generally positive relationships with their parents.

Hoelzle concludes with two broader points.  First, the worry expressed by Rob Reich and others that homeschooling might stifle the autonomy of children, turning them into servile robots parroting their parents’ conservative ideology, turns out not to really be a problem.  All four of these young adults have found their own voices and have come to views that are less conservative than their parents’ to varying degrees.

Second, his results don’t really help parents trying to figure out how best to pass on their values to their children.  Hoelzle puts it like this, “If you are running into home education and hoping that it will offer some sort of foolproof shield against the negative influences of the world, you might find yourself disappointed.” (p. 258)  Based on his data he speculates that the more authoritarian the parenting style, the more likely a homeschooled child may be to go, in the words of one of his subjects, “a little more wild.” (p. 258)

Appraisal:

I have three things to say about this article.  First, Hoeltzle is asking what I think is the most important question a homeschooling researcher can ask today.  He is right on the money with his critique that the bulk of the homeschooling research misses the point with its obsession with academic achievement.  For most homeschooling parents academic concerns are not the primary reason they do what they do.  They choose homeschooling because they want to pass on their (usually conservative Christian) values and to shield their children from alternatives.  Does it work?

My second point is that unfortunately Hoelzle’s study doesn’t much help us answer that question.  Though it’s well written and full of thoughtful observations about his four subjects, what we have here is basically just four anecdotes.  Is the fact that all four of the subjects ended up more liberal than their parents indicative of a broader tendency or is it an anomaly?  How representative are these four stories?

Third, despite what I just said, Hoelzle’s four anecdotes do at least alert us to be cautious when interpreting broader-scale quantitative data about the degree to which adults who were homeschooled maintain their parents’ values.  Hoelzle notes that on a Ray-style survey at least three of the four would probably have reported on a standardized question that they shared their parents’ values and would have been tallied as “successes” from the point of view of those who hope homeschooling can keep Christian kids Christian.  But Hoelzle’s more nuanced look reveals that in fact these young adults, though still Christian for the most part, are by no means the ideological zealots their parents were.

It is my great hope that the question posed by this article will be taken up by many more researchers who collectively, whether thorough rigorous quantitative studies using more representative samples or through the gradual accumulation of more and more biographies like these, can help us all figure out the degree to which homeschooling succeeds in doing what most parents who choose it hope.  My own inkling is that what Hoelzle found here happens a lot–that many, perhaps most hoomeschoolers don’t grow up to be carbon copies of their parents.  But clearly some do–as many of the graduates of schools like Patrick Henry and Ave Maria, who are now second-generation culture warrior homeschoolers themselves, demonstrate.  What percentage keep the faith and what percentage veer?  What factors might explain the variations?  These are vital questions for the future of homeschooling research.

Milton Gaither, Messiah College, author of Homeschool: An American History.

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One Response to THE TRANSMISSION OF VALUES: Do Homeschooled Christian Kids Keep the Faith as Adults?

  1. Lioness says:

    Nice post, but could we please not refer to 18 – 32 year-olds as “kids”? They’re not kids. They’re adults. Let’s not infantilize and depower them.

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