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A homeschooling mom responds to ‘Shiny Happy People’

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Fabio Principe | Shutterstock

Theresa Civantos Barber - published on 06/24/23

If you are a homeschool parent doing your best to give your kids a great childhood and education, then this series has nothing to do with you.

Since the Shiny Happy People documentary series came out on Netflix, posts about it have flooded my social media.

If you are unfamiliar with the series, it examines the practices of the Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP), an organization with problematic teachings that was once popular among certain fundamentalist Christians.

Alex Harris, who appears in several episodes of the series, described it this way:

The series focuses on the Duggars — the ultraconservative homeschool family made famous by TLC’s hit reality show 19 Kids and Counting, then rocked by sexual abuse, infidelity, and child pornography scandals perpetrated by their oldest son. It also explores the influence of disgraced Christian teacher Bill Gothard.

Gothard was the founder of IBLP and later had to resign from the organization after his own series of scandals.

How homeschoolers have responded

Why are stories and comments about this series all over my news feed? Well, the families in Shiny Happy People “homeschooled” their children. Most of my social media consists of families like mine who also homeschool their children.

Many responses to the series are defensive. Homeschool parents seem worried that others will assume they subscribe to some kind of cult-like ideology. Many seemed to take the documentary’s criticisms personally.

I did not share this concern, but felt no need to say anything until my best friend, also a homeschooling mom, sent me this text message: 

“I’ve been watching Shiny Happy People. It makes me feel scared of homeschooling my kids.”

After that, I decided I had to say something.

Comparing curriculums and methods

One of many concerning revelations from the show is the educational neglect many children suffered under the banner of IBLP. Their families used the Advanced Training Institute (ATI) curriculum developed by Bill Gothard. 

In a spiel reminiscent of a con artist, Gothard promised that the ATI program would not only give a child a high school equivalent training but would also provide the equivalent of four years of college, a pre-law, a pre-med, and a business education.

In reality, the curriculum is extremely simplistic and repetitive to a fault. A parent who used the program said

The ATI Wisdom Booklets do not give systematic and comprehensive training in the various subjects … the training in science, medicine, history, English, etc. is hodgepodge and piecemeal … From eighth grade to twelfth grade, when a person should be learning higher level subjects, the ATI student repeats the content that they had in their elementary grades.

Students who used this program found themselves unprepared for higher education, often to their lifelong detriment, as several interviewees from the series describe.

I watched the series, and it’s made clear that many of the children received the bare minimum of education, if you can even call it education. One family on the show didn’t teach their daughters math beyond fractions because that was all they needed to know to cook and bake. 

A look at the numbers

Given this context of educational neglect, is Shiny Happy People an accurate representation of most homeschooling families? Let’s take a look at the research.

  • Homeschoolers typically score 15-30% higher than public school students on standardized tests
  • The majority of peer-reviewed studies on academic achievement reveal a positive effect for the homeschooled students compared to institutional schooled students
  • Homeschooled children tend to have higher college GPAs than children from conventional schools 
  • Homeschool students possess higher ACT scores and graduation rates when compared to traditionally-educated students

In sharp contrast to the IBLP experience, most homeschooled students are thoughtfully educated and well prepared for higher education. Most homeschooling parents seek to offer their children the best education possible, not the bare minimum.

As a homeschool mom, I value nothing more highly than my children receiving an excellent education. I ensure ample access to world-class educational opportunities and keep up with educational research to follow best practices. I also involve my children in classes, co-ops and other activities to ensure adequate socialization.

Not everyone puts as much time into homeschooling as I do, but most homeschool parents are committed to giving their kids a great education. This show does not represent the vast majority of homeschool families.

Not about us

At the same time, it feels silly to even bother clarifying that most homeschoolers are not like the subjects in the series. I’m not remotely concerned that people will think the show is an adequate representation of the average homeschooler.

Would we judge all parents who send their kids to school by the actions of a few? Of course not — and it would be absurd to do so. Similarly, it makes no sense to take criticisms directed at a few homeschooling families as an indictment of the rest of us.

Homeschooling is an extension of parenting in general. In the case of Shiny Happy People, problematic parenting was the problem, not homeschooling in and of itself. 

If you are a homeschool parent doing your best to give your kids a healthy, well-rounded childhood and great education, then the only people you have to answer to, at the end of the day, are your children.

Should anyone ask if you are “like those homeschool families on Shiny Happy People,” just laugh and say, “Nope, not at all.” 

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