June 9, 2008

The Socialization Question

Everyone is concerned about the socialization of your children. Complete strangers will ask how you plan to accomplish socialization in your homeschool. Relatives will sincerely worry your kids are suffering from lack of socialization. But in all honesty, the socialization issue convinced me to homeschool.

I met my first homeschooler in 1990 when Peter was around one year old. Because I was trained as a classroom teacher, I viewed her with quite a bit of curiosity. She had school desks in her kitchen and educational posters hanging in her hallway. Hmm...school at home? I liked the idea, but I just wasn't sure it was educationally sound. It had been a few years since I'd graduated, so I went to the library and consulted some of my favorite educational theorists. What stuck out to me was the social engineering behind schooling and the overarching goal of "making good citizens." It sounds nice. I didn't want Peter to grow up to be a bad citizen, but I also wanted him to have a free mind and be willing to follow in the footsteps of Thomas Jefferson or James Madison, standing up to the unjust as his conscience dictated. I didn't want him to melt into the crowd and become another cog in the social machine.

That imagery reminds me of several Calvin and Hobbes cartoons by Bill Watterson. One of my favorites shows Calvin holding a snowflake for Show and Tell, a "unique and exquisite crystal that turns into an ordinary, boring molecule of water...when you bring it in the classroom..."

But socialization is good. Why keep kids from it? I think we have a narrow view of socialization. Here are some definitions:

From the Encyclopedia Britannica:

Socialization: the process whereby an individual learns to adjust to a group (or society) and behave in a manner approved by the group (or society). According to most social scientists, socialization essentially represents the whole process of learning throughout the life course and is a central influence on the behavior, beliefs, and actions of adults as well as of children.

American Heritage New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition
Learning the customs, attitudes, and values of a social group, community, or culture. Socialization is essential for the development of individuals who can participate and function within their societies, as well as for ensuring that a society's cultural features will be carried on through new generations. Socialization is most strongly enforced by family, school, and peer groups, and continues throughout an individual's lifetime. (See also acculturation.)

Socialization is a life-long pursuit of learning how to function in your world, wherever that might be. But are schools the best place or the only place a child can be socialized?

To help me decide, I thought through a typical day at school. The child enters a classroom in the early morning, has an assigned seat in which he is to sit and be quiet and pay attention for about 50 minutes. Then a bell rings and he moves to another classroom (I know, early elementary classes don't usually change rooms, but stick with me). There he sits quietly, pays attention, the bell rings, repeat. If he tries to socialize during these classroom periods, he gets reprimanded.

What might my child learn from this daily, weekly, monthly experience? I think he'd learn to pass notes when the teacher isn't looking. I think he'd learn ways around the system that keeps him sitting still and quiet for hours, trying to focus on things he's not interested in. I think he'd bond with kids his age because they are all trapped in the same system, with no voice for real change, trying to make the best of their situation. That bonding would alienate him from kids in "other groups," and he'd learn to resent the adult in the room.

If that sounds too negative, a good student who seems to cope well in school learns to "play the game" to get the grades and teacher recommendations to get into a good college. He also learns to view his peers as competition and probably won't be too willing to help them succeed.

Eventually, he finishes 12th grade and graduates. He'll probably go on to college, where he'll experience a little more freedom in his day. In fact, he'll probably be so relieved that he'll have to fight the "caged animal set free" syndrome I see everyday here in my university town.

Then, finally, graduation from college and on to a job! But wait, at his job he won't switch topics every 50 minutes. And he'll have to talk to and relate to people of all ages. In fact, that same-aged peer group has now scattered. He's on his own, skilled at bucking the system but not improving it, and forced to make decisions when most of his life has been dictated for him. Where's the preparation and "socialization" in that?

I had (and continue to have) other concerns about doing school the traditional way. I wonder about personality numbing, that phenomenon that occurs after a few years of schooling when your playful child becomes afraid to show his true self to his peers. I see it as a rainbow becoming shades of gray so it blends in and won't draw attention to itself. I also wonder about unhealthy coping mechanisms that go undetected because parents aren't around their kids during the day and because teachers have their hands full. And I am concerned about over-worked, disrespected teachers who are poorly paid and expected to perform miracles with thirty kids of various abilities.

I wanted to give my child a chance to experience life without any of these concerns. If I would become a student of my child and give him all the encouragement and opportunity possible, I believed he would flourish. If he could take park district classes, music lessons, volunteer at the local historic site, join non-school sports teams, or get involved in community theater, I believed he would become confident in his abilities and know how to work with people of all ages. If he was allowed to delve deeply and uninterrupted into his interests, I believed he would learn how to find answers, would love the process of learning, and become an expert in many areas. At least that was my theory when I started.

And so far, with my kids, I was right.

photos: international travel and new friends, watching fireworks with friends, Meg as Gabriella in High School Musical

Here's an interesting study about how moms teach social skills.


Dawn said...

*BRAVO*BRAVO* (standing and clapping)
We took our daughter out and homeschooled her this year. I look forward to people asking me the socialization question because it's so entertaining to then get into a discussion about what life is in school and watch them realize that their child is enrolled in a potential socialization nightmare. I believe there are good things and bad things about homeschooling, just as there are good and bad about bricks and mortar school - but people who are stuck on the socialization concern are on the lowest level of Bloom's taxonomy when it comes to thinking about the value of school or the value of homeschooling if you ask me.

I need some coffee said...

After my child comes home from school ,I spend the evening correcting the socialization she has had that day.
Home schooling is much easier.

My Serenity Craft Shack said...

I am printing out your article and sending it to all of the homeschool opponents in my life.(trust me, I have alot) My extremely warm and social 9 year old turned into a nightmare of a child who now has a hard time getting along with other, and has such an attitude that I want to pull my hair out. This is all after I gave into the pressure and put him into school during the end of my pregnancy because I was on bed rest and too many people were concerned about him falling behined and of course most importantly..... socialization. If I can't take them to homeschoool groups and everything else I put them in because of the socialization pressure, then they would become socail rejects for the month I was on bedrest. so I put them in and I kept them in for the remainder of the year. Everyone I talk to says, isn't it so much nicer having them in school, and when I reply "NO" now I have a child who no longer gets along with anyone and had major attitude, I am informed that is how they all are. Makes me wonder how you can just say, " oh well, thats how they all are. My 9 year old became this way as a defense to the kids in his class who do not interact with anyone out side of themselves picking on him. He goes to the senior home where his grandpa lives and has dinner with the people that live there and helps out there. they love him, but his school friends veiw that as socailly unacceptable. His brother in kindergarten's friends looked up to him because he would play games with them and help. His school friends veiw that as socially unnaceptable. He would help at his 2 year old sister's story hour at the library,UNACCEPTABLE. I am just wondering what kind of socialization skills he was supposed to gain from school. He is now so afraid to socialize with anyone outsize the box that he is miserable to us. I dont understand why people couldn't see how social he was in the first place. and school has ruined it. I am so happy summer is here and I can work on getting my son back, and tell all those who tell me, you need to keep them in school for social reasons, no I need to keep them out for social reasons.

Jena said...

I'm glad you all spoke up on this issue and your experiences. I hope they help others think twice and be sure about their choices.

Feel free to email me too--hangontight@gmail.com.

Kez said...

The best thing I see when we have our homeschool get-togethers is how well all of the different ages play and interact together. Not just little ones over here, big kids there - sure there is some of that, but you also see the big kids helping the little ones out as well.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you completely...

What is the caged animal set free syndrome?

Just curious.

Jena said...


I made that one up. It's kids acting without restraint, trying everything they couldn't get away with back home. I think it's because they haven't learned how to discipline themselves at a younger age. They weren't able to "test their wings" before being let out of the chicken coop. :)

Jena said...

mamaof4,your story is heartbreaking. You're right--the summer will be good for him. I wish more people could see beyond the normal way to do school. You know, it wasn't until the mid to late 1800's before the US started pushing schools as we know them. So how did society survive before then? Abraham Lincoln only went to about a year of school (the one-room version). He seemed pretty well adjusted.

Jena said...

and here's a third comment in a row from me...

I want everyone to know that I am not against public school. I think a parent is the only one who knows the child well enough to decide if a particular school will be good for a particular child, and at what age. The problem is the monopoly on thought in the schooling world. There is more than one way to educate a child.

Heather said...

This is an awesome post--and exactly right on. This is exactly what my husband and I decided when I quit teaching while pregnant with our first. We never looked back.

Laurie said...

This is absolutely perfect! It's everything I've ever wanted to say but better than I could say it. Absolutely, right on and amen!

Willow Rosenberg said...

Having spent 13 years at school, I could not agree more. In fact, because I had different interests at school age and was bullied badly until year 8, I only really began to learn how to make real friends at university and work, after school had long ended. I would gladly have gone without the school type socialisation, thank you very much!!

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