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ROUND HILL, Va. — They said goodbye to Aimee outside her elementary school, watching nervously as she joined the other children streaming into a low brick building framed by the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Christina and Aaron Beall stood among many families resuming an emotional but familiar routine: the first day of full-time, in-person classes since public schools closed at the beginning of the pandemic.
But for the Bealls, that morning in late August 2021 carried a weight incomprehensible to the parents around them. Their 6-year-old daughter, wearing a sequined blue dress and a pink backpack that almost obscured her small body, hesitated as she reached the doors. Although Aaron had told her again and again how brave she was, he knew it would be years before she understood how much he meant it — understood that for her mother and father, the decision to send her to school was nothing less than a revolt.
Aaron and Christina had never attended school when they were children. Until a few days earlier, when Round Hill Elementary held a back-to-school open house, they had rarely set foot inside a school building. Both had been raised to believe that public schools were tools of a demonic social order, government “indoctrination camps” devoted to the propagation of lies and the subversion of Christian families.
At a time when home education was still a fringe phenomenon, the Bealls had grown up in the most powerful and ideologically committed faction of the modern home-schooling movement. That movement, led by deeply conservative Christians, saw home schooling as a way of life — a conscious rejection of contemporary ideas about biology, history, gender equality and the role of religion in American government.
Christina and Aaron were supposed to advance the banner of that movement, instilling its codes in their children through the same forms of corporal punishment once inflicted upon them. Yet instead, along with many others of their age and upbringing, they had walked away.
Like all rebellions, this one had come with consequences. Their decision to send Aimee to the neighborhood elementary school — a test run to see how it might work for their other kids — had contributed to a bitter rift with their own parents, who couldn’t understand their embrace of an education system they had been raised to abhor. And it had led Christina, who until that summer day had home-schooled all of their children, into an existential crisis.
“I never imagined sending you to the local elementary school instead of learning and growing together at home,” she wrote later that day in an Instagram post addressed to her daughter. “But life has a way of undoing our best laid plans and throwing us curveballs.”
Christina did not describe on Instagram how perplexed she and Aaron had been by a ritual that the other parents seemed to understand; how she had tried, in unwitting defiance of school rules, to accompany Aimee inside, earning a gentle rebuke from the principal.
And she did not describe what happened after their daughter vanished into a building they had been taught no child should ever enter. On that first day of school — first not just for one girl but for two generations of a family — the Bealls walked back to their SUV, and as Aaron started the car, Christina began to cry.
(Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
The ‘Joshua Generation’
Across the country, interest in home schooling has never been greater. The Bealls could see the surge in Virginia, where nearly 57,000 children were being home-schooled in the fall of 2022 — a 28 percent jump from three years earlier. The rise of home education, initially unleashed by parents’ frustrations with pandemic-related campus closures and remote learning, has endured as one of the lasting social transformations wrought by covid-19.
But if the coronavirus was a catalyst for the explosion in home schooling, the stage was set through decades of painstaking work by true believers like those who had raised Aaron and Christina. Aided by the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) — a Christian nonprofit that has been dubbed “the most influential homeschool organization in the world,” and is based less than five miles from the Bealls’ house in Northern Virginia — those activists had fought to establish the legality of home schooling in the 1980s and early 1990s, conquering the skepticism of public school administrators and state lawmakers across the country.
[Tell us about your home-schooling experiences]
Through their influence, a practice with roots in the countercultural left took on a very different character. Among conservative Christians, home schooling became a tool for binding children to fundamentalist beliefs they felt were threatened by exposure to other points of view. Rightly educated, those children would grow into what HSLDA founder Michael Farris called a “Joshua Generation” that would seek the political power and cultural influence to reshape America according to biblical principles.
Home schooling today is more diverse, demographically and ideologically, than it was in the heyday of conservative Christian activism. Yet those activists remain extraordinarily influential.
Over decades, they have eroded state regulations, ensuring that parents who home-school face little oversight in much of the country. More recently, they have inflamed the nation’s culture wars, fueling attacks on public-school lessons about race and gender with the politically potent language of “parental rights.”
But what should be a moment of triumph for conservative Christian home-schoolers has been undermined by an unmistakable backlash: the desertion and denunciations of the very children they said they were saving.
Former home-schoolers have been at the forefront of those arguing for greater oversight of home schooling, forming the nonprofit Coalition for Responsible Home Education to make their case.
“As an adult I can say, ‘No. What happened to me as a child was wrong,’” said Samantha Field, the coalition’s government relations director.
Earlier this year, Jinger Duggar Vuolo — familiar to millions of TV viewers from the reality show “19 Kids and Counting” — published a memoir in which she harshly criticized Bill Gothard, a pivotal but now disgraced figure in conservative Christian home schooling whose teachings her parents followed. Beginning a decade ago, Gothard was accused of sexual abuse and harassment by dozens of women — allegations the minister vehemently denied.
Farris said it is not uncommon for children who grow up in oppressively patriarchal households to reject or at least moderate their parents’ beliefs. However, he said such families are a minority in the home-schooling movement and are often considered extreme even by other conservative Christians.
“I view this as the fringe of the fringe,” Farris said. “And every kid that I know that has lashed out at home schooling came out of this.”
Christina, 34, and Aaron, 37, had joined no coalitions. They had published no memoirs. Their rebellion played out in angry text messages and emails with their parents, in tense conversations conducted at the edges of birthday parties and Easter gatherings. Their own children — four of them, including Aimee — knew little of their reasons for abandoning home schooling: the physical and emotional trauma of the “biblical discipline” to which they had been subjected, the regrets over what Aaron called “a life robbed” by strictures on what and how they learned.
Aaron had grown up believing Christians could out-populate atheists and Muslims by scorning birth control; Christina had been taught the Bible-based arithmetic necessary to calculate the age of a universe less than 8,000 years old. Their education was one in which dinosaurs were herded aboard Noah’s ark — and in which the penalty for doubt or disobedience was swift. Sometimes they still flinched when they remembered their parents’ literal adherence to the words of the Old Testament: “Do not withhold correction from a child, for if you beat him with a rod, he will not die.”
The Bealls knew that many home-schooling families didn’t share the religious doctrines that had so warped their own lives. But they also knew that the same laws that had failed to protect them would continue to fail other children.
“It’s specifically a system that is set up to hide the abuse, to make them invisible, to strip them of any capability of getting help. And not just in a physical way,” Christina said. “At some point, you become so mentally imprisoned you don’t even realize you need help.”
‘Breaking the child’s will’
Christina had felt no urge to escape when, at the age of 15, she listed her “Requirements for my husband” in neat, looping script on a ruled sheet of notebook paper.
“Must want me to be a full-time homemaker & only have an outside job if required or instructed by my Potter,” she wrote, referring to biblical verses that liken humans to clay in the hands of God. “Must believe in ‘full & unconditional’ surrender of our # of children to God Almighty.” And: “Must desire to homeschool our children.”
The list is a blueprint of what she had been taught about the proper ambitions of a woman: to bear and raise children while shielding them from what those around her called “government schools.” She felt both hopeful and nervous when, several years later, her father, Derrick Comfort, came home with news: He had just met with a young man who had been raised with those same ideals — and who wanted Christina to be his wife.
Aaron was shy and cerebral, a self-taught web developer who had grown up in Fairfax County, Va., had never attended college and, at age 26, still lived with his parents. He barely knew Christina Comfort, the oldest of eight children on her family’s 10-acre farm on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. A graduate of Patrick Henry College — founded by Farris in Virginia to cater to Christian home-schoolers — she taught math and writing to her siblings and did chores around the farm. She prayed while riding a lawn mower for God to send her a husband.
The Comfort and Beall families were both active in a religious community led by Gary Cox, an evangelical pastor and pioneer of Maryland’s home-schooling movement. Christina was a graduate of Cox’s home education network, Walkersville Christian Family Schools, while Aaron began attending Cox’s church in rural northern Maryland as a teenager. The minister exerted a powerful influence over his congregation and students, teaching that children live in divinely ordained subjection to the rule of their parents.
[The Christian home-schooling world that shaped Dan Cox]
Cox — who still operates a home-schooling organization, now called Wellspring Christian Family Schools — declined repeated interview requests. Last year his son, Dan Cox, a home-schooled Maryland state delegate who denied the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election, won the Republican gubernatorial primary. He went on to lose in a landslide to Democrat Wes Moore.
During Aaron and Christina’s “courtship” — a period of chaperoned contact that served as a prelude to formal engagement — they seemed ready to fulfill their parents’ hopes. Eating calamari in Annapolis or touring Colonial Williamsburg, they talked about what their future would include (home schooling) and what it would not (music with a beat that can be danced to). But signs soon emerged of the unimaginable rupture that lay ahead.
On a spring afternoon in 2012, the couple sat in a small church in Queenstown, Md. In preparation for marriage, they were attending a three-day seminar on “Gospel-Driven Parenting” run by Chris Peeler, a minister whose family was part of Gary Cox’s home-schooling group. The workshop covered a range of topics, including the one they were now studying: “Chastisement.”
“The use of the rod is for the purpose of breaking the child’s will,” stated the handout that they bent over together in the church. “One way to tell if this has happened is to see if they can look you in the eyes after being disciplined and ask for forgiveness.”
Bible verses were cited in support of corporal punishment. But Christina had misgivings.
“I really don’t think I can be a parent,” she wrote to Aaron in the margins of the handout. “It just feels like you have to be, like, hardened.”
“YES! YOU! CAN!” Aaron wrote back.
The use of the “rod” — interpreted by different people as a wooden spoon, dowel, belt, rubber hose or other implement — was a common practice among the conservative Christian home-schoolers Aaron and Christina knew, and one they had both experienced regularly in their own families.
The elder Bealls and Comforts did not respond to repeated requests to discuss the discipline they used with their children and the decision by Aaron and Christina to embrace public education. Aaron’s older brother, Joshua — who Aaron said still home-schools his children — did not return calls. Aaron’s other siblings could not be reached for comment. Christina’s siblings, some of whom have also left her parents’ home, either declined to comment or could not be reached.
Aaron actually shared Christina’s qualms. He knew that the term parents in the movement casually used for discipline, “spankings,” did not capture the childhood terror of being struck several times a week — sometimes more, sometimes less — with what he describes as a shortened broomstick for disobeying commands or failing to pay attention to his schoolwork.
The memory of waiting as a small child outside his parents’ bedroom for his mother to summon him in; the fear that his transgressions might be enough to incur what he called “killer bee” spankings, when the rod was used against his bare skin; his efforts to obey the order to remain immobile as he was hit — all these sensations and emotions seeped into his bones, creating a deep conviction that those who fail to obey authority pay an awful price.
“For a long time, I’ve wondered why I was so unable to think for myself in this environment,” he says today, attributing the shortcoming to “learning that even starting to think, or disagree with authorities, leads to pain — leads to physical and real pain that you cannot escape.”
Now, on the threshold of parenthood — Christina would become pregnant within two weeks of their wedding on Sept. 29, 2012 — the couple’s reservations about “chastisement” could no longer be ignored. As a wedding gift, they said, Aaron’s brother and sister-in-law had given them “To Train Up a Child,” by the popular Christian home-schooling authors Michael and Debi Pearl.
The Pearls advocate hitting children with tree branches, belts and other “instruments of love” to instill obedience, and recommend that toddlers who take slowly to potty training be washed outdoors with cold water from a garden hose. Their book advocates “training sessions” in which infants, as soon as they are old enough to crawl, are placed near a desired object and repeatedly struck with a switch if they disobey commands not to touch it.
The Pearls have defended their methods, saying they are not meant to encourage brutality and, when properly applied, reduce the frequency with which parents must later discipline their kids.
Aaron and Christina did not follow the Pearls’ advice when their first child, Ezra, was born. Nor did they take on authoritarian roles with their second, Aimee, or third, Oliver. All were home-schooled, albeit in less isolation than their parents: Christina joined co-ops with other Christian mothers in Northern Virginia.
But by the time the Bealls had Aurelia, their fourth child, Aaron — now a successful software engineer whose job had enabled the family to buy a four-bedroom house in Loudoun County — had begun to question far more than corporal punishment.
“When it came time for me to hit my kids, that was the first independent thought I remember having: ‘This can’t be right. I think I’ll just skip this part,’” he says.
But if that seemingly inviolable dogma was false, what else might be? Aaron gradually began to feel adrift and depressed.
“It’s like having the rug pulled out from under your feet,” he says. “All of reality is kind of up for grabs.”
He scoured Amazon for books about evolution and cosmology. Eventually, he found his way to blog posts and books by former Christian fundamentalists who had abandoned their religious beliefs. He watched an interview with Tara Westover, whose best-selling memoir, “Educated,” detailed the severe educational neglect and physical abuse she endured as a child of survivalist Mormon home-schoolers in Idaho.
And in the spring of 2021, as he and Christina were struggling to engage Aimee in her at-home lessons, he suggested a radical solution: Why not try sending their daughter to the reputable public elementary school less than a mile from their house?
(Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
Christina could think of many reasons. They were the same ones Aaron had learned as a child: Public schools were places where children are bullied, or raped in the bathroom, or taught to hate Jesus.
But she also suspected that Aimee could use the help of professional educators. Just as important, she had learned all her life that it was her duty to obey her husband. She was confounded and angry, at both Aaron and the seeming contradiction his suggestion had exposed.
“I guess I’m just honestly confused and wonder what you think,” she wrote in an email to her father in May 2021. “I’m supposed to submit to Aaron, he wants the kids to go to public school. … You think that’s a sin but it’s also a sin to not listen to your husband so which is it?”
At first, Christina’s and Aaron’s parents reacted to the news that they were considering public school for Aimee with dazed incomprehension. Did Christina feel overwhelmed, they asked? Did she need more help with work around the house? As long as Aimee was learning to read, she would be fine, Aaron’s mother assured them. Christina’s father sent a YouTube video of John Taylor Gatto, a famous critic of America’s public education system.
The dialogue took on a darker tone as Aimee, with Christina’s hesitant agreement, began school that fall. By then, Aaron had told his parents he no longer considered himself a believer.
“This is absolutely devastating,” his mother, Linda Beall, wrote in a long email to Christina. “I hurt so much for you Christina!!!”
“I don’t think Aaron is going to be wrestled into heaven with good arguments,” Linda added. “I think this is likely about his response to hard things in his life. I think he needs to come face to face with God himself, and bow before Him in recognition of his own sin, and need for a Savior.”
Despite the sympathy expressed in the email, Christina bristled at the suggestion that her husband’s crisis of faith stemmed from his reluctance to face “hard things” in his life. She knew that reexamining his religious convictions and traumatic memories had perhaps been the hardest thing Aaron had ever done.
Aimee, meanwhile, was thriving at Round Hill Elementary. By the third quarter, her report card said she was “a pleasure to teach,” was “slowly becoming more social and more willing to participate in class” and showed “tremendous growth” in her reading skills, which had lagged below grade level at the beginning of the year.
For several months after that first week of classes — when she had come home wearing a paper hat, colored with blue crayon and printed with the words “My First Day of First Grade” — Aimee had had a stock response when her parents asked her how she liked school: She would suppress a grin, say she “hated it,” and then start laughing at her own joke.
“You should have asked to go to school,” Aimee, who knew her mom had been educated at home, would eventually tell Christina. “It affects your whole life.”
Now it was Christina’s turn to question her belief — not in Christianity, but in the conservative Christian approach to home schooling. She began to research spiritual abuse and the history of Christian nationalism. Ideas she had never questioned — such as the statement, in a book given to her by her dad, that it “would be a waste of her time and her life” for a woman to work outside the house — no longer made sense.
Her loss of faith in the biblical literalism and patriarchal values of her childhood was coming in the way the movement’s adherents had always warned it would: through exposure to people with different experiences and points of view.
Those people just happened to be her daughter and her husband.
“This is the guy I’ve been married to for eight years,” she recalls thinking. “I know him. I know his heart. I know what kind of parent he wants to be to our kids. These easy answers of ‘Oh, you’re just not a Christian anymore, you just want to sin’ … didn’t work anymore.”
As Aimee’s first year at Round Hill Elementary came to an end, Aaron and Christina were more convinced than ever that they had made the right decision. But they were also at a loss for how to heal the tensions with their parents.
In a 2022 email intended for a pastor at her church but sent by accident to Christina, Linda Beall blamed her daughter-in-law for their deepening rift, saying she had taken undue offense at good-faith efforts to advise and support the family through Aaron’s loss of faith.
“So she is again flipping the script from the reality that we love them and her, want to support them, and have only tried to do that again and again, but have been assaulted every time we engage. And I have given up trying [because] it all gets flipped and used against us,” Linda wrote. “I really can not remember one conversations we have had since this unfolded that has not escalated things. So when she beats up ‘everything’ I say, never offers forgiveness, why would we want to engage again?”
Around the same time, Christina sent Aaron’s parents a series of text messages lamenting what she said was their unwillingness to reconcile and explaining that she had changed her opinions about the way she and Aaron had been raised.
“There has been so much pain but I am so excited to now understand and see past the ways that people control and manipulate me,” she wrote. “And you may not believe it but I still love Jesus.”
Aaron and Christina had decided that, in the fall of 2022, all three of their school-age children — not just Aimee but 5-year-old Oliver and 9-year-old Ezra — would attend public school. Aurelia, then 2, would remain at home.
Despite Aimee’s positive experience, Aaron and Christina were anxious, both for their children and about how their parents would react. One afternoon in June, Christina sent a text message to her mother.
“I need to tell you that all three kids are going to school in the fall. I’m sorry, because I know this will be upsetting and disappointing to you and dad,” Christina wrote. “I figured you should hear it from me first.”
Three hours later, her mother texted back.
“Dearest Christina, it is not at all upsetting or disappointing to me,” Catherine Comfort wrote. “You and Aaron are outstanding parents and I’m sure you made the decision best for your family.”
Even Aaron’s parents finally signaled a grudging degree of acceptance. In February, Linda and Bernard Beall walked into the gym at Round Hill Elementary one cold Saturday afternoon to watch a school performance of “The Lion King.” Ezra had a part in the chorus as a wildebeest.
Sitting on plastic chairs in the dark and crowded room, the pair gave no outward sign of the remarkable nature of their visit. When the performance was over, they hugged their grandkids in front of the stage and exchanged halting small talk with Aaron and Christina. Then they drove off, with no discussion of a visit to their son’s house a few blocks away.
(Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
About 10 minutes remained before the Bealls would have to pile into their minivan, and the children needed to get dressed — in their pajamas.
It was Groundhog Day, a damp night in February, and a low fire glowed in the hearth of the Bealls’ living room. Aaron and Christina sat on the floor playing card and board games with their kids, while Ezra sat on the couch, wearing headphones and absorbed in a game on his laptop.
Soon they would be leaving to attend their elementary school’s “For the Love of Reading Family Night,” held in the school library, where students were encouraged to come dressed for bedtime.
As Oliver rose to change (Ezra, the oldest, would not deign to put on his jammies), Aimee told her parents how her second-grade class had learned that day about Punxsutawney Phil.
Aaron looked at her in bewilderment.
“Phil?” he asked. “Am I out of the loop?”
His daughter stared back at him in disbelief.
“He’s famous!” Aimee said. She explained Phil’s role in predicting the length of winter.
“I knew about groundhogs,” Aaron said. “I just didn’t know about Phil.”
“He’s really famous,” Aimee said.
Christina smiled at her husband.
“Home-schooler,” she said.
These were the gaps Aaron and Christina had become accustomed to finding as they learned about a world whose boundaries extended far beyond the one in which they had been raised. There were so many things they had not learned, and perhaps would never learn.
Stacks of books on the living room’s end tables testified to their belated efforts at self-education: popular works by the biologists Neil Shubin and Robert Sapolsky, as well as “Raising Critical Thinkers” by Julie Bogart, a leading developer of home education materials who has criticized conservative Christian home-schooling groups. Aaron and Christina were still young, but they knew enough about the demands of life, work and family to understand that they could not recover or reconstruct the lost opportunities of their childhoods.
But they could provide new and different opportunities for their own kids. They were doing so in Loudoun County, one of the hotbeds of America’s culture wars over public instruction about race and gender. To the Bealls, who truly knew what it was like to learn through the lens of ideology, concerns about kids being brainwashed in public schools were laughable.
“People who think the public schools are indoctrinating don’t know what indoctrination is. We were indoctrinated,” Aaron says. “It’s not even comparable.”
There were still moments when they were condemned by an inner voice telling them that they were doing the wrong thing, that both they and their children would go to hell for abandoning the rod and embracing public schools. But the voice was usually silenced by their wonder and gratitude at the breadth of their children’s education.
That breadth was on display as the Bealls jostled into the school library with other families. It was the second day of Black History Month, and the shelves were set up with displays of books about the Underground Railroad, soprano Ella Sheppard and Vice President Harris. Where the walls reached the ceiling a mural was painted, with Mary Poppins and Winnie the Pooh.
Aaron and Christina stood shoulder-to-shoulder, surveying the room. This was the belly of the beast, the environment their parents had worked to save them from.
But they weren’t scared to be inside this school, and were now familiar with it. On Tuesday mornings, Christina volunteered here, helping Aimee’s class with reading lessons.
“Let’s go out this way, guys,” she said, leading the way through an exit when it was time to disperse from the library to listen to the teachers read stories aloud.
The hallways were long and wide, with plenty of room for small legs to gather speed. Soon Aaron and Christina were watching as their children, who knew the way to their classrooms, ran far in front of them.