Brazil’s religious homeschooling groups are giving parents instructions on how to spank their children

Brazil’s religious homeschooling groups are giving parents instructions on how to spank their children

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Training dished out by Brazil’s homeschooling industry is encouraging parents to spank their children “calmly and patiently” as a teaching tool, a disturbing investigation by openDemocracy and Agência Pública has found.

Books, websites and videos seen by our journalists give parents tips on how to spank children and dodge the law — by avoiding major injuries, visible marks and public humiliation. They also say parents who do not punish their children with “the rod” do not love God or their children.

Brazil’s Senate is expected to vote this year on a bill that would legalize homeschooling, passed already by the Chamber of Deputies, as promised by president Jair Bolsonaro on his 2018 campaign trail – to the dismay of UNICEF.

It’s something that conservative groups and high-ranking members of his government have long pushed for despite the tiny size of the sector, which is estimated to cover just 0.03% of school-age children.

A powerful lobby

Corporal punishment has been illegal in Brazilian education since 2014.

“It is at school that abuse and violence are revealed,” said federal legislator and educator Sâmia Bonfim, from the Socialism and Freedom Party (PSOL). “Without access to school, children who suffer violence are even more vulnerable.” Some 81% of reports of physical abuse against children occur at home, she added.

A total of 46.7 million students are enrolled in primary and secondary schools in Brazil, according to the official statistics office Inep, while 1.4 million of children are out of school.

Meanwhile, only 15,000 children are educated at home, claims the National Association for Home Education (ANED), the most vocal group promoting homeschooling and pushing for legalization by federal, state and municipal bodies.

“With so many pressing issues in education, only a powerful lobby explains the approval of a bill that would serve a group of just 15,000 people,” Bonfim said.

Spanking ‘calmly and patiently’, with a ‘purpose’

One online course, written by Bolsonaro’s former national secretary for human rights Alexandre Magno Moreira, tells parents: “Physical punishment always has to have a purpose… it is something that must be done calmly, patiently, and within specific situations.”

Punishment “cannot put the life or health of the child or adolescent at risk … it cannot provoke embarrassment, humiliation, or any other type of vexation for the child,” it adds.

Moreira, who served as Bolsonaro’s national assistant secretary for human rights in 2019 and 2020, and ANED’s legal director from 2010 to 2018, is still a legal adviser for the group.

He is also connected to the ultra-conservative U.S. group Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) and sat for eight years on the board of the Global Home Education Exchange (GHEX), a platform for HSLDA’s international activities.

The course, ‘Direito das famílias’ (Right of the families), is available on the streaming platform Brasil Paralelo, nicknamed the ‘Netflix of the Right’.

Moreira’s Telegram group, ‘The family and its rights’ (which has more than 10,800 subscribers), ran a survey on corporal punishment last year; 51% of 664 respondents ticked the option “yes, I use corporal punishment (e.g. slaps)”.

One respondent wrote: “The rod of discipline keeps the foolishness of the heart at bay. They [children] need to understand that sins have consequences, and that the rod purifies the heart.” Another said: “I only use the rod, never my hand, flip-flop or belt, the Bible doesn’t teach us to use these things, but it does [teach us to use] the rod!!!”

Religious justifications

Founded in 2010 and based in Brasília, ANED lobbies Congress directly and also runs a network of local representatives in several Brazilian states.

ANED does not explicitly endorse violence against children in its own official communications, but it does distribute supporting materials that do so – via Clube ANED, its membership discount programme that works with 25 partner companies. At least four of these companies provide literature or learning materials that promote or normalize corporal punishment, our investigation found.

One of these companies is run by Flávia Saraiva, an ANED representative in the north-eastern state of Bahia. Família que Educa offers books and handouts on subjects such as maths, science and geography and links to YouTube videos and Telegram groups including Moreira’s channel.

One Clube ANED partner, HomeschoolariZando, gives free access to a cloud-storage system with teaching materials. Among them are Bible verses such as: “A rod and a reprimand impart wisdom, but a child left undisciplined disgraces its mother.”

Kairós Consultoria Educacional – another ANED partner company that sells homeschooling training to families – promotes the work of the controversial author Simone Quaresma.

Quaresma’s book, whose title translates as “Everything mothers wanted to know about biblical discipline”, was banned in 2020 for advocating corporal punishment. It advised parents to use silicone rods to strike their children on non-visible parts of the body, and said that as soon as a baby could sit upright, “you need to start with gentle slaps on the butt or the little hands… Soon, however, it will be time to start using the actual rod.”

The book has also been sold via the company Simpósio Online de Educação Domiciliar (Simeduc), a platform for homeschooling products and services. The firm is owned by homeschooling advocate Gaba Costa, who helped introduce the ultra-conservative Christian U.S. homeschooling programme Classical Conversations to Brazil.

Promoting the use of the rod

Another ANED partner company, Comunidade Educação no Lar, sells an online course with two whole modules on authority, obedience and correction, including extracts from Quaresma’s book.

Beyond the book, lectures and texts by Quaresma recommend lines to feed children who are questioned about physical violence at home: For instance, that corporal punishment is a private matter.

She also suggests disability should not be a reason to exempt children from physical punishment.

The 2020 court decision also ordered the removal of “biblical discipline” content published by Quaresma on her social networks and website. But a text published after the decision and others dated 2014 describing how to use the rod are still online on her website, Mulheres Piedosas. Quaresma appealed the ban with no success.

Quaresma told us she couldn’t comment on her book as she is “facing a lawsuit arising from a complaint by the Public Ministry [prosecution office]”. She said homeschooling was a good option for Christian families unable to get Christian schools that suit them. But, she said, “the discipline that the Bible teaches has nothing to do with homeschooling. They are two completely different things.”

A Classical Conversations tutor and mentor for homeschooling families, who asked to remain anonymous, told us that spanking children was good biblical practice.

“The Bible says ‘discipline your child, but do not kill them with discipline’,” she said. “The Bible contains verses that direct us to use the rod. But when we say this, outsiders think we’re talking about massacring [our children].”

Some parents “guide their children by taking things they like away from them, others use a rod,” she added.

Pandemic effects

Domestic violence against children is common in Brazil. A 12-state survey by the Brazilian Public Security Forum revealed that “mistreatment” was the second most reported offence (after rape) against under-18s in 2019 to 2021. The vast majority of the victims (90%) were under 15.

Mistreatment is abuse used as a means of correction or discipline, according to both the criminal code and the Code of the Child. The third most reported crime was bodily harm in a context of domestic violence. In total, the survey estimated that 137 crimes against minors are reported daily, with high rates of under-reporting.

Only three of the seven homeschooler parents we were able to interview for this investigation considered corporal punishment to be cruel or inappropriate.

A 38-year-old woman from the southern city of Florianópolis, who spoke to us on condition of anonymity, began homeschooling her three children in 2018.

She did not beat them, she said – but she expressed understanding for “families that are going to use the rod of discipline, in the sense of smacking their children aggressively,” something she didn’t see as a problem.

“People from all walks of life, regardless of their religious beliefs, are going to act in the way that they see fit in order to educate their children,” she added. But an Evangelical homeschooling promoter who has opposed corporal punishment in a YouTube video, and spoke to us on condition of anonymity, argued that the Bible had been misinterpreted.

“If a religious leader says you can smack a child, then people will believe that biblical discipline is about hitting your children,” she said. But many Christians “listen to any outdated thing,” she added.

The reasoning of those who use or defend corporal punishment, on top of the religious justification, is that schools are also places where children can suffer abuse, even if it’s outlawed.

“Unfortunately, schools nowadays fall well short of expectations, especially since the pandemic,” argued a 34-year-old graduate in pedagogy and mother of four who spoke to us on condition of anonymity. She also cited “gender ideology” and violence in schools among reasons she had turned to homeschooling in 2019.

Bolsonaro’s campaign promise

ANED has been challenging the law that makes school attendance mandatory for under-17s since 2010, lobbying for state-level legislation and defending homeschooling parents in courts. Several cities and two states, Santa Catarina and Paraná (2021), passed homeschooling laws, but state courts suspended them.

In 2018, the Supreme Court ruled that parents would not be allowed to take their children out of school to teach them at home until federal legislation was passed.

But Bolsonaro’s election the same year was decisive in strengthening ANED’s position, according to the group’s website. Legalizing homeschooling was one of the president’s key promises for his first 100 days in office.

He didn’t deliver on that promise, but Bolsonaro returned to the issue this year to appeal to conservative constituencies as he seeks re-election. A bill to amend the general education law and introduce rules to govern homeschooling was speedily passed this May in Brazil’s lower house, the Chamber of Deputies, and is now being considered by the country’s Senate.

It was sponsored by two members of Bolsonaro’s cabinet – the evangelical pastor Damares Alves, and Abraham Weintraub, the former minister of education.

“Homeschooling is a dream and a right of every family,” Alves wrote on her Twitter account, posting a video calling on voters to ask their representatives to pass the bill.

The proposed rules for homeschooling state that at least one parent must be a graduate or undergraduate in higher or technical education, and that homeschooled children must take annual tests designed for them by regular schools.

But legislator Sâmia Bonfim, who voted against the bill, said: “We know that schools are not in a position to perform these tasks.”

There are no guarantees that homeschooling parents will be supervised or that their children will be tested, she explained. “It is unfeasible… There are no material and human resources to carry out inspections. There are no trained teachers to follow up students outside the school.”

Teaching from the Middle Ages

Andrea Silveira Souza, researcher in education and religion at Juiz de Fora Federal University, explained: “Homeschooling has become one of the main issues and talking points… for conservative evangelical groups, opposed to secularism and the prohibition of religious indoctrination in public education, both guidelines laid out by the 1996 general education law.”

The homeschool teaching methods adopted in Brazil come from abroad. The two most cited are the U.S.-based Classical Conversations and that of the 19th-century British educator Charlotte Mason. Both connect the learning process to biblical principles, and their teaching methods date back to the Middle Ages.

One widely shared book is ‘Teaching the Trivium’ by U.S. authors Harvey and Laurie Bluedorn, which argues that parents should have exclusive jurisdiction over their children’s education, and schools are spaces that weaken family bonds and create “out of control cultural exchange”.

The Trivium – the “verbal arts” of grammar, logic and rhetoric – is a key component of classical education, as practized in Ancient Greece.

The support of U.S. ultraconservative groups

But the most relevant foreign influence comes from the ultra-conservative U.S. group HSLDA.

ANED boasts about its connections with HSLDA, which has been actively lobbying at the Brazilian Congress.

The U.S. group was founded in 1983 by lawyer Michael Farris, president of Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) – the legal advocacy and training organisation involved in campaigns against abortion rights and LGBTIQ people in the U.S. and abroad, which is considered a “hate group” by the U.S. Southern Poverty Law Center.

HSLDA successfully lobbied for the deregulation of homeschooling across the U.S., which allows parents to control their children’s education without state supervision. Stories of neglect, violence and death have been told by news reports and numerous former homeschool students.

“Corporal punishment is widespread in U.S. homeschooling communities,” Ryan Stollar, a U.S. former homeschool student, researcher and advocate for children and abuse survivors, told us.

HSLDA, he said, “believes very strongly in the idea that parents have these universal rights to be able to parent children how they see fit. And corporal punishment is probably one of the top free parental rights that HSLDA focuses on the most.”

Opposing the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, HSLDA former lead attorney Chris Klicka said: “If children have rights, they could refuse to be home-schooled, plus it takes away parents’ rights to physically discipline their children.”

And HSLDA’s founder Michael Farris wrote in detail about why and how to spank children in his book ‘How a Man Prepares His Daughter for Life’.

ANED, HSLDA, GHEX, ADF, Alexandre Magno Moreira, Flávia Saraiva, Editora Kairós and Comunidade Educação no Lar did not respond to our requests for comment.

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